by Chris Cameron
Published at 2016-10-19
Zoe Whittall is the award-winning author of four novels and three books of poetry and was TEC's sponsored author at this year's Word On The Street. Her latest novel, The Best Kind of People (Anansi, 2016), is on the short list for this year's Giller Prize. It provides a fresh take on one of the most difficult and controversial criminal and social challenges of the century. Her storytelling abilities and her strong sense of pacing and drama make this a compelling book to read.
The story’s premise is established in the opening pages. George Woodbury is a science teacher at the local prep school in a well-to-do small town in Connecticut, where the students “had everything that most children in America lacked.” Ten years earlier George became a town hero for disarming a rifle-toting intruder who invaded his school. His wife Joan is a respected ER nurse. Their seventeen-year-old daughter Sadie is a straight-A student, yearbook editor, track athlete, and has a steady boyfriend named Jimmy. Sadie’s big brother Andrew is a lawyer in New York, in a stable relationship and prospering.
In the midst of this domestic tranquility and predictability, charges of sexual misconduct are levelled at George, originating from some of his female students.
One of the aims of the book is to show how such a disruption can affect a family like the Woodburys. This is a tale of what happens when a very established family loses hold of everything that they thought defined and secured them.
Joan, as wife of the accused, spends a good deal of the time second-guessing everything she thought she knew about George, replaying her years with him, trying retrospectively to find clues that might have tipped her off about his behaviour. Gradually little secrets and falsehoods begin to appear in the story of George’s past. Has he always told the truth, or has his whole life been a lie? Or is it somewhere in between?
The passages that focus on Sadie are consistently successful. The dialogue has a ring of authenticity, although I admit I am too far removed from that environment to know if a teen would accuse anyone of “acting totes weird,” as one young lady declares. How a girl of seventeen copes with a family mess such as hers is material for the best drama. Sadie, a model student and pillar of the school community, drifts off the rails somewhat but rarely allows the situation to lead her into complete wrack and ruin. Her basic level-headedness and morality keeps her from becoming a tragic figure; she even experiences a mildly liberating detachment from her former social circle. The Sadie chapters reminded me a bit of a Young Adult novel, so completely does Whittall immerse us in Sadie’s world and mind.
The narrative is enhanced by a subplot in which a confused and vulnerable Sadie develops an infatuation with Kevin, the live-in boyfriend of Jimmy’s mother, who then exploits her family’s story to write a sensational novel in an effort to boost his sagging writing career. It is a slightly clichéd storyline but it works well here.
Older brother Andrew has moved from small-minded suburbia to New York and is enjoying a successful law career and a satisfying relationship with the new-aged Jared. Andrew is an odd duck. He travels back home to help his mother during the crisis but is often tossed on seas of conflicting emotions and indecision. He is described as living in a kind of “highly functional fog, rarely knowing how to answer the question ‘How are you?’ with any kind of certainty.”
The most intriguing and effective dramatic device in the novel is Whittall’s decision to leave George Woodbury’s character in the shadows for the entire story. After he is taken away to jail we learn little about him. Ten years earlier, following George’s heroic actions against the school gunman, people were prompted to ask themselves, “Could I have done that?” After his arrest, this becomes another question: “Could he have done that?”
We don’t see much more of George. In a recent interview at Word On The Street in Toronto, Whittall noted that she had done a lot of background writing to establish George’s character in her mind but eventually left him as an unfilled-in outline. This works brilliantly, as his family searches for answers to questions all families in such situations must surely ask: “How? Why? How could I not have known this was happening?”
Whittall’s narrative resists the temptation to take sides. To do so would have steered the story to places shallower and easier to navigate. She also holds back on the story’s resolution. We are all dying to know the outcome of the charges, but Whittall makes us wait – as the family had to wait, agonizingly – until George’s case is heard in court.
Her approach makes it difficult not to want to make some kind of moral judgment – on the community or on George. She depicts as many gestures of support for the Woodburys as incidents of mob-like community outrage. Few of these gestures, whether positive or negative, are useful to the family. The support from the “men’s rights” group seems as perverse and illogical as the social ostracizing of the once-popular and admired Sadie.
The Best Kind of People succeeds because of the precision of Whittall’s characterization, the powers of her observation, and the crisp readability of her narrative. She rarely oversteps her mandate as witness and storyteller. Whether the narrative comes to a satisfactory conclusion will be for each reader to decide.
For more about the book and Zoe Whittall, visit http://zoewhittall.com/