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Geography Club

Review

Geography Club

"What was the purpose of the Geography Club?" sixteen-year-old narrator Russel Middlebrook asks himself near the climax of Brent Hartinger's debut novel, a quick-paced chronicle of the founding of a secret gay students' club at Goodkind High School.

That's a good question in regard to the book, as well as the club.

While there remains a need for young adult fiction that shows exaggeratedly positive gay role models, Hartinger has done something more daring with GEOGRAPHY CLUB: he shows both gay and straight teenagers being upstanding and understanding; he also shows them being selfish, cliquish and, well, jerkish. This is a good thing.

As all adults --- and most adolescents --- realize, the American teenager is a moody, capricious creature, occasionally subject to self-esteem shortages, peer pressure and all-purpose insecurity. And if Russel and his pals can put a check next to all of the above, well, readers will know it's a reality check.

In an effort to write wonderfully realistic characters, Hartinger knows they must sometimes do things that are terribly realistic. So, despite knowing it's wrong, Russel, who's gay, at one point refuses to stand up for Brian, the tormented school spaz. Kevin, Russel's closeted jock boyfriend, joins his teammates in taunting Russel with homophobic remarks. Kevin's best friend Gunnar pushes Kevin into dating girls, despite the fact that he recognizes he's gay. There are scenes in GEOGRAPHY CLUB that will make your stomach knot, because you'll find characters you're fond of doing things they shouldn't do. It's a heck of a lot like high school.

The purpose of the Geography Club at Goodkind High isn't immediately recognized by any of the gay, lesbian and bisexual characters who make up the club. Once Russel discovers --- via an online chat room (in another sharp bit of realism, he readily acknowledges an attraction to online porn) --- that there are other gay kids in his school, they start an official after-school group so they can socialize and talk about their concerns. They call it the Geography Club, trying to sound boring and nerdy so that they won't be found out: "No high school student in their right minds would ever join that," thinks Russel. Clearly, there's a vein of shame here, a need to feel hidden and secretive about one's identity. While gay kids surely serve as a good example of this sort of thinking, it's hardly their private domain. What high school student doesn't at some point feel that she is hiding her 'real self' in order to fit in with her social environment. And what high school student (or adult) doesn't eventually feel the need to 'come out' from an inaccurate public persona.

It turns out that the purpose of the Goodkind High Geography Club is a temporary one --- a short, important first step in Russel and company's longer journey toward accepting themselves. Throughout the novel, one senses that if these gay kids and their straight schoolmates were more comfortable with themselves, they would be less cruel to each other. When, in the novel's final chapter, the Geography kids officially rename their club The Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, they begin a critical second step, not just in the coming out process, but in the growing up process as well.

Reviewed by Jim Gladstone on October 18, 2011

Geography Club
by Brent Hartinger

  • Publication Date: March 9, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: HarperTeen
  • ISBN-10: 0060012218
  • ISBN-13: 9780060012212