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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger (HarperTempest, 2003)
Geography Club

In this young adult novel, a group of students gathers to form a geography club, "a club that's so boring, nobody would ever in a million years join it" (63). You see, "Geography Club" is code for a budding Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, a society so secret that not even its advisor knows what it's about. Not only are its members closeted, the club itself is in hiding. Chosen for its lack of appeal to the student body, the name Geography Club highlights the importance of naming in the book—what things are named and when we can name them. This book focues on the geography of high school life.

Author Brent Hartinger maps the terrain of Goodkind High School (which is, of course, anything but good and kind) as he describes all the cliquish misfortunes of its student life. Russel Middlebrook, the narrator of Geography Club, tries desperately to live up to his name, straddling the middle of the stream, safe in (or more accurately, from) all the cliques, but as the story progresses, his position becomes harder and harder to maintain. Clearly, Hartinger is having fun with his names:
  • Geography Club allows Russel to learn more about Land (Kevin Land).
  • What better way to describe a lesbian than to give her the last name Buckman?
  • And Trish Baskin certainly "basks in" self-enjoyment.
  • Homophobia and sexual repression at the school have taken their toll (Ms. Toles).
But beyond the play with naming, the book deals with the much more serious issue of when these characters can name who they are. As the book begins, Russel hides who he is from his family, his friends, and other students. It is only online that Russel can identify himself, but even then he must hide his name:
There was only one other person in the room, which made sense to me, since I figured there was only about one other gay person in my whole hometown. His handle was GayTeen, which wasn't the most original name I'd ever seen. Mine was Smuggler, for no reason I can explain. (13)
Hmm. A smuggler, of course, moves goods from one country to another illegally, and our narrator is definitely on course to explore the border region of high school respectability, the Land of the Popular, the Landscape of Love, Outcast Island, and all the country in between. The challenge for Russel is to realize when his travels are false, when they are smuggling from one region to another, and more importantly, how to navigate the geography honestly and openly.

Geography Club is a realistic exploration of the challenges of high school life. At times, I was bothered that Russel wasn't smarter or quicker. How could he fail to realize what Kevin was really like for so long? Why hadn't he noticed that there were other gay students? Where is this boy's gaydar? But then again, if he knew all that, he wouldn't be a high school student, would he? Russel and his friends face a much bigger challenge than coming out or fitting in; they face the very real challenge of learning to be true to yourself. I'd recommend the book for students of any sexuality who navigate the same terrain.


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