March 10, 2005

BOOKS: Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School, Michael Bamberger (2004)

Bamberger spends a year at Pennsbury High in eastern Pennsylvania. It's a large school, with nearly 5000 students, and is particularly well-known locally for its prom, an elaborate event for which the entire school building is decorated; much of Bamberger's book focuses on that prom and the preparations that go into it. The book is well written, and Bamberger does a nice job of bringing his characters to life.

But here's the problem: He's chosen to focus almost exclusvely on the school's elite -- the quarterback, the junior class president, the president of the prom committee -- instead of giving us a really well rounded picture of the student body. It's like portraying America as populated entirely by CEOs and Congressmen.

Bamberger doesn't even seem to be aware that there might be other students in the school, and on the rare occasions that they do come into view, he accepts without question the idea that they are somehow less interesting or deserving than the golden children he's focused on.

Take, for instance, quarterback Bobby Speer, whom Bamberger calls (unironically) "Pennsberry's prince." He volunteers to help paint sets for the school musical, and Bamberger tells us Bobby "smudged the line between athlete and thespian" by actually speaking to the drama and music kids. This is reported as a great act of noblesse oblige; it doesn't occur to Bamberger to wonder why there's such a division between the groups, or to question the fact that Bobby's involvement in the musical (limited and tangential though it is) is universally seen as slumming. And it certainly doesn't occur to Bamberger to ask any of the artistic students how they feel about the fact that the quarterback has deigned to speak to their lowly selves.

If you want a look at the lives of the in crowd, this will do nicely, but it's a shame that Bamberger's focus is so limited; he missed the opportunity to tell a less common and (if only because less common) more interesting story.


Anonymous said...

I happened upon this book in the library and I just finished reading it. I borrowed it because the jacket made the content sound interesting. I did enjoy the book but after reading your "blog" found that I was perhaps narrow in my expectations. You are right, he did omit the "average" student profile from repeated appearances, but I do think he captured a wide range of the typical angst and feelings experienced by most teenagers and kept the record in a compact and readable format. I was entertained by the book and recalled some of my own teenage "issues" underlying some of the experiences shared (and I graduated from h.s. 30 years ago....) So, the book met my limited expectations, but then I was only expecting to enjoy reading the book, and I did. But I also enjoyed reading your perspective on this subject too.

Keith said...


I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I think that the author does a good job of profiling the students he does include, and the book is certainly well written. I probably paid particular attention to the omission of the less popular kids and the outcasts because that's what I was in high school.