Kathy Manos Penn is a native of the “Big Apple,” who settled in the “Peach City” – Atlanta. A former English teacher now happily retired from a corporate career in communications, she writes a weekly column for the Dunwoody Crier and the Highlands Newspaper. Read her blogs and columns and purchase her books, “The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday” and “Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch,” on her website theinkpenn.com or Amazon.
Kathy Manos Penn with Lord Banjo
More specifically, what is it about boarding schools that makes them the setting for so many novels? Christopher Swann's "Shadow of the Lions" is set in a boarding school in the mountains of Virginia. When I read reviews of the book in both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to get it. I wasn't disappointed.
Though several reviewers compare it to John Knowles' "A Separate Peace" and the movie "Dead Poet's Society, " both set in New England boarding schools, I found it not quite as deep, though nonetheless suspenseful. I loved it as much for the setting, which features Virginia and Asheville, North Carolina, as I did for the plot.
The lions are those at the entrance to Blackburne, the school where the mystery begins. One friend vanishes during his senior year; the other goes on to become a writer of some note, all the while haunted by the disappearance of his friend. The fast-paced plot will keep you up late trying to speed read to the conclusion.
I enjoyed it so much, I had to get copies for my friends who have a vacation home in the Virginia mountains and for a Georgia friend. That "Shadow of the Lions," Swann's first book, won multiple awards and was reviewed in publications like the WSJ was all the more impressive to me when I read that he teaches high school English in Atlanta.
I taught high school English, though for only four years, not his twenty. Having met many local authors who aspire to break into the big time, it warmed my heart to read of Swann's amazing debut, and as an avid reader and former English teacher, I can assure you his success is well deserved.
Devouring his book made me reflect on the several other boarding school books I've read through the years. "A Separate Peace," set at a boys school during WWII was the first followed by "A Secret History," set in a co-ed school. Both involve student deaths.
Curtis Sittenfeld's "Prep" takes place at a co-ed school in Massachusetts and is filled with the "cruelty of cool" as one reviewer describes it-the cruelty of class, money, and social norms that comes into play at a prestigious boarding school. I couldn't put the book down but sometimes found it painful to read.
"The Lake of Dead Languages," set in a girls schools in the Adirondacks, has more of a gothic feel with its tapestry of mythology and legend. It focuses less on teenage angst and more on mystery.
Returning to boys schools, Joanne Harris's "Different Class" set in England is another page-turner. The Washington Post description says it all: "It's Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Bad Seed...[A] rich, dramatic tale that builds to a surprising conclusion." I was surprised to learn that Harris is also the author of "Chocolat," a very different book that was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche.
So back to my question: What is it about boarding schools that makes them the setting for so many novels-particularly dark novels? Is it the isolation? Is it the hierarchy that's inevitably set up among the students? Is it the humiliation inflicted on the vulnerable few? Perhaps it's some combination of these factors and more. Whatever it is, the boarding school setting has produced some classic novels. Hopefully, another one will come our way soon.