Lindsey Lee Johnson takes readers deep inside the high school ecosystem in The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Actually, the first chapter occurs in eighth grade, but the remainder are during high school. Her main characters are students, and one first-year teacher.
Every one of these kids is entitled and privileged, growing up in a wealthy San Francisco area suburb. The balancing factor to this attitude is their teacher, Molly Nicholl, who grew up in more average circumstances in Fresno. She works hard to connect with kids with whom she has little in common. And what she doesn’t know is that during eighth grade, all of them participated in a cyber bullying incident that ended tragically. It changed them, but not necessarily in the ways you’d expect.
Johnson alternates chapters from Molly’s perspective with her students. The kids are what you’d expect: a jock, a dancer, a studious kid, a beauty, a hippie, one who gets caught up in sex, and a couple of bad boys. All the kids except one get a single chapter, but their stories intertwine enough to create a more complex set of characters. It’s an ambitious way to unveil the plot line, and Johnson handles it well.
We recently watched a Netflix series called Quicksand, whose main characters are also privileged high schoolers. The story line is equally tragic in a different way, but Johnson’s book called it to mind. Plus, I had plenty of visuals in mind when the book hit a party scene.
Feeling captivated by this story surprised me. I chose it to fulfill a prompt in a reading challenge, and because I heard the author speak on a panel two years ago. Typically, stories about teenagers bore me to tears. But these kids are such a hot mess that I couldn’t resist their story.
That said, the hot mess is depressing as hell. And Molly doesn’t provide any balance, as she is her own, slightly older version of mixed up. The book abounds in trigger warnings, but if I told you all of them I’d spoil the plot. Just know, this isn’t for you if you’re affected by damaged people doing damaging things to themselves and others.
Johnson has a lovely way with language. She creates a story line full of chaos, yet her descriptions are engaging and a pleasure to read. She also knows high schoolers intimately, based on the tutoring work she’s done in a similar community. Her characterizations rang true for me. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
This book earns three solid stars, verging on 3.5. And I recommend it to anyone who wants to read an adult book about teenagers.