Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tales of the Madman Underground, by John Barnes

Barnes, John. Tales of the MADMAN underground: An historical romance 1973. (2009)--Prinz Award finalist

Karl Shoemaker lives in Lightburg, Ohio and is a charter member of the Madman underground. The Madman underground is the title that a group of kids have adopted for themselves based on their required participation in a school counseling program. The "group" is for kids with seriously disturbed behaviors that have gotten them referred to counseling. All this takes place in 1973 with a few flashbacks to Karl's childhood and the death of his father from cancer while Karl was in 8th grade. Most of the book takes place in Karl's senior year. He is trying to have one "normal" year and get out of the Madman Underground. To get out he has to reject his best friend. The plan for "normal" falls apart pretty quickly, instead we get a year of learning the value of the Madman underground and friendship in general.

There is quite a bit of sex, alcohol, and violence in the book. In fact, Karl attends AA meetings himself. In this small town in Ohio there is a lot of alcohol use and the resultant problems it can cause. There's also a realistic picture of how the social fabric of a small town both supports and fails to notice kids with difficulties. It may seem that for a small town there are an unusual number of kids with troubled lives but when I think back to what was happening in my own relatively small town (one high school, class of 368 students) it is within the boundaries of believable.

For much of the book I was pretty depressed. Karl has a truly terrible life and is looking to solve his problems by joining the army as soon as he graduates. Since this is set during the Vietnam War, joining the military to escape his life is pretty drastic. Karl, as a natural leader, becomes entangled in all sorts of messes primarily because of his friends from the Madman Underground. Karl's life at home is also pretty desperate. He works at least four different jobs each week to make money. His mother and her various boyfriends systematically steal Karl's money to buy alcohol and hang out in bars or host parties. He has taken to hiding his money in jars in a wide variety of places around the house and yard.

The rest of the Madman Underground have similarly dreadful problems. They are all realistic--neglect, abuse, poverty and violence. Almost all of them are fueled by alcohol or drugs. School is some relief--there are subjects Karl likes and several teachers seem to be supportive, although no one really knows the depth of the problems in his home or that of the other Madmen. Although the stories are gritty and depressing there is enough humor to have kept me reading. In fact, near the end of the book it kept me awake into the early morning hours to finish.

At first I questioned the place of this book on the Prinz award finalist list. The award is for "excellence in YA literature" and named in honor of a Topeka Kansas school librarian. This is definitely a book I would keep to the side in my classroom and recommend only to students who needed it or could handle the content. Of course, I find I am becoming increasingly conservative. I may not be the best judge of what is acceptable in schools. I know that this is a book that would be challenged (that's code for "censored") by a wide variety of groups if they were aware of it. But, having finished it I have decided that deserves the honor of being an honor book on the Prinz award list and it should be easily available to junior and senior high school readers. Alcohol and drug abuse is a plague that affects a devastatingly large percentage of kids in schools. This book explores the topic and does not romanticize drinking or drugging. It also offers a positive message of coping mechanisms that kids can use. Every school counselor and many teachers should be aware of this book to refer it to kids who have to deal with this in their homes or social group. Yes, it's really hard to read--but in the end worth every minute. I expect I will now be reading more of John Barnes work. If this is an example of the quality of his writing--I want more!

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