Let’s see, what do we have here. Generic title? Check (what can’t happen to you? Divorcing Parents? Teen pregnancy? Parents making you move away to Live Off The Land? VD? Really, this could be about anything…). Ugly, vanity-press style cover art? Check (don’t they make you practice drawing hands at Commercial Art School?) Really, this does not seem very promising… wait a minute. Are those nuclear cooling towers in the background? Okay Arnold Madison, you’ve got my attention.
Background: As far as YA titles cashing in on the headlines go, the Teen-Romance-and-Nuclear-Power Plant-Meltdown barely qualifies as a sub-sub-sub genre, although in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, a few enterprising authors attempted to do something on the theme.
The Plot: Unfortunately, this week’s title is pretty much the definition of “a middling effort”, offering few plot twists and only half-hearted stabs at Social Relevance.
High school junior Sandy Farrell is awakened in the middle of the night by strange noises at the nearby Rocky Falls Nuclear Power Plant, but she quickly shrugs off any worries, as she has more pressing teenage concerns, including a Bitter Divorced Mom and a sensitive 8-year old brother who is having problems in school. Plus her overly-possessive boyfriend, Bryan, is pressuring her to Go Steady AND they are scheduled to compete in the big canoe race first thing in the morning!
About that canoe race: way too much of the plot is taken up with it. When Sandy arrives at the river the next morning for the combination race, regatta and Chili Cook-off, she hears rumors that something had happened at the nuclear plant from her friends, socialist weirdo Marta and Future Farmer of America Tammie, but it seems to be nothing serious. What is serious is that she and Bryan are competing in a new, experimental model of canoe that has been designed by a friend of Bryan’s family, and they are considering selling it at the family’s sporting goods store. This all goes on for way too long, but the upshot is that Bryan’s father WANTS THEM TO WIN because THEY ARE NUMBER ONE! Bryan and Sandy come in third place, which thrills Sandy, since this is her first-ever race, but causes Bryan to stomp off like a petulant toddler. Yawn.
Sandy has to hurry home, because she has promised her mother to help out with her mobile dog-grooming business that afternoon, but despite arriving well ahead of the appointed time, she finds only a passive-aggressive note from her mother. Trying to do something nice, Sandy and her brother Allan decide to have dinner ready for when she gets home and start making spaghetti. Unfortunately, Mom is kind of a bitch on wheels:
“Spaghetti! Just what I need after a brutal day. A heavy starch dinner to sit like lead in my stomach. Allan, what in heaven’s name are you doing to that lettuce? I’ve seen a pack rat’s nest that looked better. Salad is woman’s work.”
She manages to criticize every aspect of Sandy’s effort, although she reassures her daughter that “It’s still all right. You didn’t ruin it yet.” Jeez, sorry for WRECKING YOUR LIFE WITH SPAGHETTI, MOM!
After dinner Sandy escapes to her friend Marta’s house, where she discusses the looming discussion that she must discuss with Bryan over his insistence that she be his “number one girl” and the general pressure to conform to small-town life. Sandy envies both Marta’s self-confidence and the support she receives from her parents to follow her dream to become an architect. Marta delivers a very to-thine-own-self-be-true speech to her friend, and also warns Sandy that people take advantage of her being so nice, especially Bryan and her mother.
The next morning Bryan is scheduled to take Sandy and Allan on a picnic expedition to pan for gold ore in the Mohawk river. Again, this is a side-trip that takes way too long- when are we going to get to those looming cooling towers? Sandy gives Bryan a lot of double talk about “labels” and how she doesn’t want to date anybody else, but if she was free to and didn’t, doesn’t that, like, proves that she likes him best? Bryan actually takes all that pretty well, and complains about how his ex-High School football star father is constantly pressuring him to BE NUMBER ONE. Allan finds a rock streaked with gold ore, skins his knee, and freaks out when he sees a snake. Now we are a full third of the way into the book: yawn.
Monday morning the hippie-ish Problems In Democracy teacher, Mr. Wood, treats his class by rolling in the AV cart so they can watch the press conference from the Governor concerning the incident at the nuclear plant. The PR flack from the plant intimates that perhaps the incident of two days prior was more serious than they let on, but assures the public that it has been fully contained. The governor muddies the message, however, suggesting that people who live within five miles of the plant “stay indoors as much as possible”.
Mr. Wood leads the class in a spirited discussion about the advantages and drawbacks of relying on nuclear power, and by the time Sandy gets to her lunch period, more rumors are circulating that the plant has experienced a partial meltdown and is orchestrating a cover up. Tammie is worried about her parents’ dairy farm and talks with Sandy about the moving “someplace safer” to start her own farm after graduation.
Some of the rumors are confirmed by the next morning, and Mr. Wood’s students are incensed that the power plant has been holding back information from the community. With the righteous fury that can only be accumulate in an 11th grade classroom, the students compose a group letter to the editor of the local paper criticizing the nuclear plant and demanding full disclosure of what has happened. Bryan refuses to sign and tells Sandy that she is getting worked up over nothing.
However, the situation in Rocky Falls has attracted the attention of the national media, even causing Sandy and Allan’s estranged father to call from California and offer them plane tickets. Their mother turns him down, assuring him that he’s needlessly worried.
However, three days after Sandy first heard the suspicious noises, school is abruptly dismissed in the middle of the morning and the town briefly devolves into a panic right out of a George Romero movie. Making her way through streets full of stalled traffic and ominously tolling church bells, Sandy arrives at her brother’s school where her mother meets them and they head home to spend the day locked in the house watching the afternoon soaps and frequent news bulletins that offer no real information. When the afternoon paper is delivered her mother is horrified to see Sandy’s name attached to the student editorial and orders her daughter to call the editor and have a retraction published; when Sandy refuses she announces that she will have Mr. Wood fired (you’d be surprised how much influence the local dog groomer wields in this town!) but is thwarted by the constant “all circuits are busy, please try your call again later” message from the phone company.
This familial meltdown (GET IT?) is interrupted by the arrival of Marta who has ventured out in a homemade radiation suit to deliver the news that her father has accepted a professorship at the University of Maine, effective immediately, because Maine only has one nuclear plant in the entire state. Her family will be leaving first thing in the morning. Sandy gives her a photograph from when they were in grade school (to remember her by) that she had rescued before her mother burned all of the family photos after her husband left her. Mom seems more than a little unstable.
After Marta leaves her mother cheerfully suggests making some hot chocolate for the family, but it is all a trick to convince Sandy to disavow the editorial. They go to bed furious at one another, but the next morning they’ve got bigger problems to deal with.
At 7:00 am the army shows up on their doorstep to inform them that they have 45 minutes to pack their things before being forcibly evacuated. And I will give credit where credit is due: the one thing this book does well is capturing the alarm and panic of having uniformed, M16-toting soldiers showing up in your town during peacetime.
Sandy and 400 of her neighbors are evacuated to a school gymnasium 40 minutes down the New York State Thruway, where she and her family are each issued a sleeping bag and mess kit and given instructions to snitch out any looters to the MPs. While Sandy searches for her friends in the crowd, the displaced residents of Rocky Falls do what they do best: walk down to the local strip mall and go shopping.
And disappointingly, just as it’s starting to get good, at this point things just kind of trail off. Sandy and her brother get full body-scans and find out that they are not going to die of radiation poisoning; Sandy finds Bryan and they have a mumbly conversation about “trying to find answers” (about Life, not the nuclear cover-up); and the next morning the town is given the all-clear to return home. Anticlimactic.
The best part about this one was doing some geographical sleuthing to try and figure out where the fictional town of Rocky Falls is supposed to be located in Central New York. I have determined that the topographical clues point to a thinly-veiled town of Herkimer.
Sign It Was Written in 1981 Department: “Mom, there aren’t any hippies or beatniks anymore. Those are old-fashioned words.”
Overly Optimistic Department: New York State has a female governor.
Stylin’ Department: “As always he wore a gold chain around his neck, a turquoise Eye of God hanging in the vee of his unbuttoned collar. Somehow the Native American piece captured the positive attitude of one of the best-liked teachers in Rocky Falls High School.”