The Plot: Themis Academy is a boarding school that believes its students are so good that they never do anything wrong. No, really. They have an honor code, a student code! Themis students are so wonderful they always live up to the honor code! The students know better. A few years ago they started the Mockingbirds. It’s a secret society dedicated to addressing what happens when students don’t follow the rules and end up hurting other people.
Alex wakes up naked in a strange boy’s bed. She takes the “walk of shame” back to her dorm room, confused, appalled. Somehow she had sex — twice — with this strange boy. Carver? Carter? Whatever. She lost her virginity to a stranger and doesn’t even remember it. She doesn’t remember his name. She doesn’t remember ANYTHING.
If you’re too drunk to say “no”, is it rape?
If you’re too drunk to say “yes,” is it rape?
The Good: While it is tempting to not believe that Themis Academy’s teachers and administration would prefer to ignore misdeeds than address them, I found it sadly believable. Schools, companies, governments, families, friends — many people and groups are so invested in how they “look” and what others think that they honestly believe it is better to keep secrets and pretend everything is perfect than to acknowledge problems, to fix things, to offer justice. Themis Academy doesn’t even hide anything — there are no coverups — they just pretend that it is all as perfect as they want it to be.
The students know better. By pretending that bad things don’t happen, the school lets these things happen over and over, lets students get away with things. A few years back, inspired in part by the ideals in To Kill a Mockingbird, a secret society was started. Alex is a junior but she has never paid much attention to the Mockingbirds. She’s a gifted pianist who is wrapped up in her music. Now, her world is turned upside down. Who can she trust? Can she trust herself to trust other people? Is she just a slut, like some people whisper? Should she speak up or pretend it never happened?
Whitney gives the reader a lot of food for thought, and for discussion, while avoiding turning The Mockingbirds into an overly didactic “message book”. The two main discussion areas that will be ideal for class discussions and book groups: justice and rape.
First, justice. Overall, Whitney’s view of people is positive. The Mockingbirds started because a group of students were bullying others online and the administration did nothing. It is a structured organization with procedures for everything from how to handle accusations to the trial. Participation and punishment is voluntary and peer-based; it is not violent. The Mockingbirds, formed in the absence of any type of school discipline, get it right.
I think there could be much discussion about the format the Mockingbirds use in pursuing justice; what would happen if the students did not buy into it; and what would happen if the Mockingbirds got it wrong. In Whitney’s book, the students buy-in reveals that they want a system of justice. It turns out, this system is barely four years old. It hasn’t had the time to “get it wrong.”
I confess, as a rather jaded person, I see the potential for the Mockingbirds to become powerful and for there to be abuse of that power — but that is not the story Whitney tells. Her story is about students seeing the powerful doing nothing and trying to do something. It is about students trying to create a fair system, with checks and balances. My questions about the Mockingbirds and abuse and well-intentioned mistakes are not commentary about the book — rather, they are questions that show how ideal this book is for class or book group discussion.
Second, rape. Whitney could have taken the “easy” way out by having someone drug Alex or spike a drink. Simply put, Alex has a few drinks on an empty stomach. A friend of hers supplies the drinks. Alex gets drunk. She passes out. Alex works through the process of trying to determine whether she “just” exercised really bad judgment in sleeping with Carter, or whether she passed out and Carter had sex with her without her consent. She also has to work out that trusting the wrong person is not her failure, but the failure of the person who betrayed that trust. All of these steps (especially the last, where the fault is not in Alex’s judgment but in Alex being betrayed) make for great discussion.
And, finally, put the two together: justice and rape. The resolution in The Mockingbirds works for Alex. Would it work in other schools? Is this justice? I know this review is turning into more of a book discussion guide, but Whitney raises some fascinating questions that can lead to some meaningful discussions.