I have to admit that I found the beginning thirty pages of the novel fairly confusing – there were late night meetings between characters that hadn’t yet been introduced, following rules that hadn’t yet been explained – and I found it difficult to care much about the characters when I didn’t understand what was going on. But I’m glad that I kept reading, because the somewhat obscure nature of the first few negotiations between the leaders of the Townies, the Cadets and the Jellicoe School students, and I began to understand the lay of the land and get to the more interesting, underlying mystery of the novel.
Don’t imagine, though, that this is simply a story about a bunch of teenagers playacting elaborately-staged campaigns. The novel certainly lays out the long-established roles governing leadership, loyalty, and negotiations for territory amongst the factions – the Townies feel that they have claim to the territory because they have grown up in the local neighborhoods, while the Jellicoe School students are boarding school kids from all over the area and the Cadets only bus in for a six week training camp every year. But the rivalries, ambushes and the occasional parley all take on much deeper implications as the story unravels.
The story centers around Taylor Markham, the newly-appointed leader of the student faction. When she was fairly young, she was abandoned by her mother at a 7-11 on the Jellicoe Road, and she was brought to the Jellicoe School by a teacher/house mother named Hannah. The Jellicoe School has been her only home and Hannah has been her only steady familial connection, so when Hannah disappears, Taylor is understandably panicked. She doesn’t feel confident in her own ability to take care of the girls in her house, nor does she really want the responsibility of handling negotiations with the Townies and the Cadets. She simply wants to retreat to the comfort of Hannah’s house and company – but Hannah has mysteriously left the school and her house stands empty, making Taylor feel abandoned all over again.
Things grow even more complicated when she realizes that the new leader of the Cadets is Jonah, the young man with whom she once tried to run away from the school in order to find her mother. Despite the obvious chemistry and affection between them, Taylor believes that Jonah betrayed her on that unsuccessful journey, and so the friction between the two faction leaders is even more tense than called for by the usual rivalry. But their connection also has the potential to break down the hostility between all three groups, as Jonah and the Townie leader begin to help Taylor try to dig up answers not only about Hannah’s disappearance, but also the house mother’s connection to Taylor’s very murky past.
Taylor and the others eventually unravel a complicated, painful story that connects the young girl, her mother and her house mother, as well as explains the origins of the war games amongst the three factions. In the midst of searching for Hannah, Taylor and Jonah develop a strong and beautiful relationship, which gives Taylor the strength to discover much more about herself and her family than she first set out to find – and if readers are anything like me, they will be pretty emotional by the end of the book. There is a lot of love and loss in Taylor’s past, but there is the potential for a lot of healing and future love as well, and I stayed up late sobbing into the pages of this novel in order to reach the ending and discover whether or not Taylor would manage to build a family out of the mishmash of Cadets, Townies, Jellicoe School students and wayward parents in this novel. Suffice it to say that I was more than satisfied (emotionally) with the ending, and even though I had been wondering for the first thirty or so pages how/why Marchetta’s novel had gotten the Prinze Award, by the end I was more than convinced that it deserves this honor. Let me reassure you, too, that while it may seem that I’ve laid out a lot of the plot – I really haven’t. I can’t even begin to explain the complexity of the plot or the relationships that develop of the course of the novel, and therein lies the pleasure of Marchetta’s book. I can’t wait to pick up some of her other novels now, to see if they are of comparable quality. I just went and ordered two more… (!)