Reading “Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes” by Kathleen West was a perfect way to escape from staying at home and remembering days gone by when our children actually went to school and adults were able to meet in person. Here we meet several people — each of whom is imperfect in some way — and we grow to, if not like them, at least understand them and sympathize with them.
Isobel Johnson has been teaching at Liston Heights High School for most of her career. She particularly wanted to teach in an atmosphere of privilege because it’s her life mission to encourage students to feel empathy toward others and to help students recognize their own privilege so that they can be sure to help others who may not be so lucky in circumstances of birth. Yet her “agenda” of pairing the required classics she is required to teach with her unique viewpoint requires her students to look for unheard voices. She asks them whose voices are missing. In most classic literature that high school students read, the perspectives are those of white males, so the question often brings forth passionate discussion and opens students’ minds to those who have been marginalized, especially in the literature they read.
She is shocked when she receives a vicious phone message on her home phone demanding that she cease her “Marxist and anti-American content.” The caller threatens Isobel’s job. We also meet Julia Abbott, the mother to Andrew and Tracy, students at the high school. Tracy loves Mrs. Johnson’s English class and has taken many of her ideas to heart, including the notion that sometimes when women stop their careers to be mothers, they never again are able to be as successful because of those lost years. She tells her mother she doesn’t know if she wants to have children, which cuts her mother to the quick.
Julia is a stay-at-home housewife and something of a “tiger mom.” Her goal in life is to make the lives of her husband and children better, easier, smoother. But often, her best intentions go awry. For example, when she just cannot wait to see if Andrew was awarded an important role in the high school play, she sneaks into school, using a keycard she wasn’t supposed to have, and in the process of looking at the bulletin board is involved in a horrible incident that gets her banned from working on the parent drama booster group. At the same time, Isobel is given paid leave while the administration investigates the sudden rush of complaints into her teaching.
Other viewpoints are included, always from characters who have something to add to the plot and our understanding of the situation and the characters’ motivations. A new teacher who Isobel has mentored has her own agenda about how to keep her job. The theater director is torn by the desire to do the right thing and what is expected of him – which are not necessarily the same. Author Kathleen West is no stranger to high school drama and parental interference. She has taught middle and high school in Minnesota, where the story is set.
She raises issues which are important, maybe right now, urgently important. She also highlights the importance of the role of teachers. We must always encourage students to question what they have been taught, to think for themselves, and to put themselves into the shoes of others. Those students who have been given much can be made to think about others who have not. I am a teacher in a similar suburb of Chicago, where many students don’t think about their privilege. Good teachers want to educate our students to be good citizens, and in America, that means citizens who understand multiculturalism and different perspectives.
West’s plot, the dialogue from teachers and parents and the students themselves, all ring true. For a debut author, this novel is impressive. She deftly balances multiple perspectives and brings together Julia and Isobel in a completely believable manner.
This is a book that need to be read in book clubs and by parents and yes, even teachers. Perhaps with more teachers like the fictional Isobel Johnson, there might be a future with fewer deaths like George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Ahmad Arbery, and the many, many, many others who died because of the color of their skin. Racism is inarguably ingrained in our culture, and we must ensure that the next generation, the generation of these students, does better.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Berkley, the publisher, for review purposes.