League of Strays
L. B. Schulman
Pub 10-2012, Amulet
Have you ever felt deceived, out of touch with reality, lost and outraged? Have you ever felt really ugly, embarrassed about being smart, scared of the future, yet guilty about the past? Have you hidden yourself while still not knowing yourself? Have you recalled good times, long forgotten days, laughing and ignoring the way things actually are? Truthfully speaking, these sentiments are inevitable at the fragile stage of life known as adolescence. At an age when everything is questioned and not many questions are answered, the feeling of emptiness is omnipresent; the search for identity blends with one’s struggle to keep up with the ever-changing world. L. B. Schulman’s novel League of Strays attempts to portray the crooked angles of this grotesque cosmos through her appealing characters. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an author focus on this particular topic, which affects so many: Is vengeance the key to justice? As a debut novelist, Schulman seems to want to prove herself and affirm her place in the world of young adult literature. This topic being one that I am particularly interested in, I believe it right to speak first of the novel as a whole and then of its importance to current events and the reader.
When Charlotte Brody, a new 17-year-old student at Kennedy High, is secretly called into a meeting, she desires nothing more than a group of friends that will accept her. Instead, she encounters a miscellaneous trust composed of four participants: Nora Walker, an intellectual known for her excellent grades and few friends; Zoe Carpenter, an obstinate loner who’s frightening presence drives people away; Ritchie, a homosexual and alleged “drug dealer” whose kindness and innocence is venerated by the other members; and finally Kade Harlin, the charismatic, infamous, yet devious young leader of the group of ancient teenagers. Together they form the League of Strays, who are lost and afraid, but eager to find both friendship and revenge for those who have wrongfully judged and hurt them. Their main goal is to develop a stable but secret friendship, one able to stand up against everyone and everything.
With each new chapter, they get to know each other, and themselves, better. Some discover that their identities are shaped by what others force them to be. Between childhood and adulthood, they face love, truth, self, and their environment, and in the process, are torn between exacting revenge and abiding by their consciences. At first, vengeance seems adequate and justified, because they think it right for their tormentors to experience the same hostility they have. Yet, as their acts of defiance grow more radical, from vandalizing school property to starting fights between other students, Charlotte begins to doubt the motivation for these acts. Torn between her love for Kade and her fear of deceiving him, she is also confronted by her own dreams, unsure if they are her parents’ or her own. This is a turning point for Charlotte — she is forced to choose between her faithfulness to the League or her own ability to make choices, but what this final decision will be is up to you to uncover.
I found this novel to be, in general, slightly disappointing. Its theme was promising, but I didn’t like the way Schulman wrote in a monotone and continuous drawl. The character arcs were too structured. Personally, I enjoy books more when they have no discernable beginning, middle or end. I feel, otherwise, that a book is too orderly, too focused on arguing a moral. A novel that simply tells a story in an original, unique way — one that doesn’t fit a certain mold — is more engaging, more attractive to young adult readers. Teenagers prefer novels to be disheveled and chaotic, much like themselves. To make a connection between reader, and character, and plot, League of Strays felt like a parent droning on and on about what is good and what is bad, which isn’t so enticing to me because I experience this every day at school, home and society as a whole. Adolescents just want something to relate to, something tangible to the mind and soul, and something that textually affects our ever-changing personas. Schulman’s novel is effective in the way that it represents, clearly, teenage stereotypes (like the Breakfast Club did thirty years ago). But maybe some of us are tired of those stereotypes. The majority of us are undefinable and fit into absolutely no mold. And this is what we are; creatures in constant transformation.
Schulman focused more on delivering a moral than on describing the truth. Because sincerely, not many of us are able to distinguish what is “good” and what is “bad” or “unacceptable.” She makes it seem as if these tormentors didn’t really deserve the vengeance delivered by the League, but what is a teenager supposed to do when this constant, repetitive harm is both physical and mental, and when there remains no other recourse but revenge? Schulman declares that, “We have to show him that he can’t mess with me,” but I disagree with her portrayal of Kade — the supposed “bad guy” — as the sole cause of trouble at Kennedy High. The real source of trouble is the school’s administration: the principals and teachers, the practitioners of discrimination that is constant and never-ending. They choose to be blind. In reality, Kade is responsible for opening the school’s eyes to the truth, the one everyone has ignored for far too long: that of this perpetual harrasment and intimidation based on the fact that an individual is different and does not conform to the norm.
On the other hand, I do appreciate Schulman’s attempt to bring awareness to the kind of oppression so many adolescents suffer. Bullying victims are between 2 and 9 times more likely to commit suicide than non-bullying victims, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year. Schulman’s book asks us what we would do in a similar position. Would we give in to the urge to seek revenge? It’s a human, natural instinct. Though Kade appears, at the novel’s close, to be a kind of sociopath, his mental torture is proof of his innocence, and of his desire for justice. His vengeance is a cry for help; a burning within him that many of us can identify with. But Schulman makes the other characters blind. They turn away from him. Personally, I think it warrants further discussion.
In short, instead of breaking the society’s molds, Schulman anticipated them, enlarged them, and approved them. Even her characters — supposed misfits of the teenage hierarchy — force themselves to succumb to adulthood, and the principals that dictate what is good or bad in the world, as well as its perpetual drone. Instead of promoting free-thinking, Schulman implies that following the “rules” is the best way to resolve conflict. She acts as a moralist instead of speaking out against a serious problem. Consequently, League of Strays had potential, but failed to meet it, weighted down by preconceived narrow-minded morals.
- Muse G., 15