Entertainment » Books


by Christopher Verleger
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Sep 18, 2015

Time and again and regardless of the era, great works on the page and screen have proven that a confined group of pubescent young men is a recipe for disaster. "Lord of the Flies," "Dead Poets Society," "A Separate Peace," and "Scent of a Woman" provide examples of educated and seemingly well-intentioned youngsters who fail to think before they act, with unfortunate results.

In the debut novel, "Wilberforce," from H.S. Cross, the students at the elite English boarding school, St. Stephen's Academy, are not only guilty of conduct unbecoming, but sugarcoat their recreational tradition of bad behavior as though it were an art form, to be handed down from one generation to the next. Upperclassmen are each assigned a younger classmate to berate, enslave and abuse, while teammates inflict brutal, vicious attacks upon each other during rugby and cricket games. When not condoning violence, the boys might sneak away to a nearby pub or read pornographic literature.

While no one is completely innocent among this gaggle of maladjusted misfits, Morgan Wilberforce is an undeniable hotbed of havoc. He tackles elder pupil, Spaulding, for whom he harbors a secret crush, but only does more physical damage to himself. His best buds, Nathan and Laurie, try to intervene, albeit in vain, particularly when Morgan designates Nathan's younger brother, Alex, as his punching bag. Morgan's carnage, however, does not go unnoticed by instructor John Grieves, who recognizes the boy's rebellious disposition, yet tries to help and better understand him. Meanwhile, John and Morgan have more in common than they ever come to realize.

The misunderstood student and professor who sees his (or her) vulnerable side is a familiar premise. Despite the author's impeccable knack for detail and description, the book starts out a little slow; but Morgan is an intriguing character, mired in enough mystery to keep the reader's interest.

Things escalate rather quickly, though, and not in Morgan's favor, when the lowerclassmen revolt but everyone immediately -- and wrongly -- suspects him. Then things get a lot worse before they (at least appear to) get better, until Morgan takes an interest in young Polly, the pub owner's daughter.

It doesn't take a genius to surmise why Morgan knowingly behaves the way he does, and even when he's not the most likeable individual, one still can't help but empathize with him. The latter part of the novel, during which the new headmaster's clergyman father takes Morgan in to examine his misconduct, is a bit drawn out. I would have liked to see more interaction between Morgan and Grieves, but I suspect Cross will explore their relationship, as well as further adventures at St. Stephen's Academy, in future works.

Cross shows tremendous storytelling talent and her prose is uniquely distinguished for a debut novelist. While the story has its holes, perhaps deliberately, I look forward to her next work.

H.S. Cross

Chris is a voracious reader and unapologetic theater geek from Narragansett, Rhode Island.


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