|Marlis Day: Why Johnny Died|
House (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1563151847
Not a perfect book, Why Johnny Died offers an insider's view of the frustration of a teacher who attempts to not only teach her students, but to save them. Day, a veteran educator, knows the educational landscape, the hills and valleys of school politics, administration agendas, budget limitations and the unending needs of her students. She creates a plot that beckons readers to mourn the death of Johnny Benson, a socially isolated seventh grade student at James Whitcomb Riley Middle-High School. We see the community look up with shock, like cattle startled as they graze, then watch them settle back into the status quo. Everyone apathetically moves on except the boy's English teacher, Margo Brown.
Margo and colleague Roxie Rayburn (the comic sidekick) call on their skills as educators to determine the correct answers. It isn't until Margo reads Johnny's journal, a class assignment, that the puzzle pieces begin fitting together to reveal murder. Why would anyone want a child dead? The findings continually surprise the two teachers, catching them unprepared for the evil that lurks closer than they ever imagined. Yet, they persevere.
The author tries too hard to point out society's flaws, creating characters who are either good or bad, nothing in between. Often characters appear symbolic rather than human, as if representing their station in society. Day describes Margo's husband and children and the Benson clan in contrasts so strong, you'd think Margo moonlights as Glenda the good witch and the Bensons twirl their broom sticks while shouting, "I'll get you my pretty!" Healthy and dysfunctional families can be deduced from how they spend their Friday nights. The Browns celebrate Fridays with pizza and friends. Johnny Benson hides in his room with his lizards.
Although Day relies heavily on stereotypes, her first book tells a surprisingly original and powerful tale of dysfunctional families, isolated and vulnerable children, greed and death. Her sense of humor and attention to detail enrich the read, and carry the story to its twisting, suspenseful and satisfying end.
But then she tacks on the epilogue, thumping us on the head as she commits reader abuse with social commentary and a heavy-handed lecture. Afraid we might not catch the evils of complacency and child abuse revealed in the mystery, Day hits us with statements like: "parent's rights are placed above a child's rights." And ends with: "Maybe we all killed Johnny."
Day needs more faith in her writing ability. Readers get the message. Puleeeze, no more reader bashing epilogues!
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