The Blackboard Jungle is set in a vocational high school in the fifties and shows the journey, over the course of a single school year, of a new idealistic teacher, Richard Dadier. He’s a simple man who just wants to teach, and who believes he can reach a class of undisciplined teenagers: all he needs to do, he thinks, is find a way to engage them.
At first it seems as if there’s not much in the way of plot to hold the reader’s attention, but Evan Hunter (better known as crime writer Ed McBain) utilises every skill in his arsenal to grasp the audience and keep them interested throughout, using a number of emotionally gruelling moments to explore his themes of redemption, faith and hopelessness.
Aside from a collection of gripping classroom scenes, there’s a running subplot with a seductive femme fatale (another teacher in his department) who continuously attempts to lure the main character into bed. Richard Dadier, whose wife is pregnant and rarely “in the mood” has to fight his urges and curb the woman’s advances, and Hunter paints the scenario in such an evocative way that we’re able to feel the character’s internal conflict: lusting and wanting, but not wanting at the same time.
There are many more moments like this in the book: scenes that seem inconsequential on the surface, but effectively tug at the reader’s emotions and fill out the picture of Dadier’s life of frustration.
And to wrap it all up, the author doesn’t cop-out with an inspirational ending where all the students learn the error of their ways and turn into A-grade pupils. It’s more like a portrait of what it was like to be a teacher in that time period — and these days too. The book is no less prevalent today as I’m sure it was then.
It’s raw and real and will bring most readers back to their school days.
In short: this book is essential reading.
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