The Headmaster’s Darlings by Katherine Clark Book Review

Oh, the sheer joy of this book, which is not outweighed in the least by the rarity of coming across a writer with complete command of language and craft. The Headmaster’s Darlings has so much excellence going on that it’s a challenge for me to know where to slather my gushing praise first! Within its 245 pages of the tightest, page-turning story I’ve read in as long as I can remember, there is comedy, sarcasm, heart-tugging sentimentality, social commentary, and suspense to the point where, when I wasn’t laughing out loud over Katherine Clark’s spot-on Southern cultural insight, I was re-reading her laser-sharp paragraphs as if they were a writer’s tutorial. Crisp, clever, economic sentences lead the reader through the story of the obese Norman Laney, a beloved high school teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, whose job lays in the balance of rumor and false accusation. But it is 1980’s Birmingham society that is judge, jury and executioner, and Norman Laney knows how to game the system. So wise to the eccentricities of an insular, antiquated, upper-class society, Norman Laney beats them at
their own game by being one of them. He is both fish-out-of-water and ruler of the roost in a story that is part comedy of manners and part
emperor’s new clothes. It is not so much the story as the telling of the story that makes or breaks a book for me. Kathrine Clark gives us her all, nay, way more than we expect in sardonically laying bare the mind frame of Birmingham, Alabama’s cloistered elitist society, whose aspirations are maintaining the status quo. Yet Norman Laney is a teacher of principle and integrity, in the field for all the right reasons, which he has to keep under wraps, lest he startle society’s neat and resistant grid of logic by which it defines itself. Written in a tone that both laughs and bites at the nuances of Southern society, there is an undercurrent of nonjudgmental acceptance of a culture as old as the hills as it seeks to raise its next generation in a manner that aspires to keeping it so. Yet it is Norman Laney’s aim to teach his students to aspire to at least something by reaching beyond themselves, and he must lead by appeasing Birmingham’s old guard as he acts as guidance counselor to their offspring. The Headmaster’s Darlings is more than a comedic social commentary on a staid Southern mentality that will be its own hubris in the end; the book doles out a lure that shows the way out, and slips it in undetected from the cunning lead of one impressionable teacher, who knows his way around covert maneuver. I understand there are two more books behind this one. My hand hovers in anticipatory wait over my Kindle.

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