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Monday, April 7, 2014

My least favorite Laurie Halse Anderson book so far (but maybe I'm wrong)

Anderson, Laurie Halse ((2002) Catalyst  New York:  Penguin

Here's the thing.  I really like Laurie Halse Anderson.  I loved Speak and Forge and a lot of her other work.  And I freely admit that I may be reacting to Catalyst out of my identity as an uber-nerd.  In other words, my negative reaction tot his book may be because I have issues.  So read the summary, and my response to the book and feel free to override it if you think you might like it anyway.
So Kate, the main character of Catalyst is a chemistry nerd (she also loves running cross-country and has a boyfriend -- so she is more atypical nerd than a stereotypical nerd).  Her life's goal is to get into MIT's chemistry program.  She is so dedicated to this future that she has not applied to any back-ups schools.  So when MIT doesn't accept her, it feels like Kate's world is falling apart.  Around the same time, the Litch family from the church where Kate's dad is pastor loses their house to a fire, and her dad's church decides to rebuild a newer better house for them.  This means that Teri Litch, Kate's nemesis from high school, moves into Kate's house with the rest of her family.  Soon Teri is stealing Kate's stuff, smoking in her car, and being abrasive constantly. When a surprising tragedy happens, it derails Kate from her chemistry dream completely. 
So one of the things I loved about Speak was the way that book detailed how the rape and cover-up in that book completely disrupted the community and relationships and all but destroyed hope  However, that book ended with a lot of hope (the scene with the writing on the bathroom stall is admittedly my favorite -- because of the amount of hope it contains.)  Catalyst is different.  There is no clear act of evil here or obvious villain.  Kate's life spirals out of control because of randomness or possibly an inattentive or malicious God.  The only hope comes in the idea that perhaps toward the end she is giving up education for healing.  There is community in this book, but we don't get to see much of it because Kate doesn't see much of it.
So as a teacher who is constantly encouraging my students to love learning and continue with it into college, it is hard for me to see as Kate is seen as virtuous for giving up her dream.  Education in this cook comes off looking uncool and selfish.  (I can't help but think about the difference that a mind like Kate's might make addressing disease, cancer, pollutions, or other major problems that biochemistry seems to hold the keys to).
It reads as a pretty stressful story.  There are not many moments of comfort hidden in this book where the reader can relax because everything seems safe for a moment..  There are also some vulgar words here and a brief (and somewhat obscure) mention of her little brother's masturbation.  The book would be best for middle school and up I think.  I can't see using it in class (though maybe you can).  If you are a Anderson fan and haven't read this one yet, take a look at it.  Let me know what you think.

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