Series: Madeline Dare #2
Hardcover, 326 pages
Published: January 10, 2008 by Grand Central Publishing (1st published January 1, 2008)
Setting: Berkshire Mountains, Massachusetts
Madeline Dare and her husband, Dean, have finally left his native land, in the rust belt of Syracuse, New York, and moved to the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Maddie becomes a history teacher at Santangelo Academy, a boarding school for emotionally disturbed teenagers. This bizarre institution forces a sort of milieu therapy — if you want to dignify it by calling it “therapy” — on the staff as well as the clients. And its treatment of its young clients crosses the line into abusive and bizarre.
Maddie is appalled to see her fellow teachers led by Dr. Santangelo’s strange blend of charisma and intimidation — they turn on each other instead of standing up for themselves and protecting the vulnerable students in their care. After a tragic event, trusting only her frustrated and bewildered husband, her friend Lulu, and several of the academy’s troubled and rebellious students, Maddie digs for the truth.
This is the second novel in Read’s Madeline Dare series, which began with A Field of Darkness. This is a character-driven mystery series and, for me, Madeline is the real hook. She’s my kind of heroine: confused and vulnerable as well as tough and edgy. Her conversations with her history students offer an opportunity to explore Madeline’s offbeat childhood. She was born into the last generation of an old, wealthy WASP family and raised by divorced hippie-renegade parents. Her childhood memories include single moms, exploited farm workers, draft dodgers, and Black Panthers. And while my background is very different — no old WASP money and fewer hippies and radicals — I identify with Madeline. I relate to her combination of compassionate strength and confused vulnerability, her progressive political leanings, and her edgy sense of humor. I also enjoyed Madeline’s rapport with and evident compassion for her students.
There were moments when the events in the Santangelo school might have felt over the top, even with the suspension of disbelief that goes with the territory when reading mysteries. However, to convince myself this wasn’t too far in left field, I only needed to look back at some of my own experiences. Treating children and teens, especially those with “differences,” as unworthy of respect is sadly all too common.
Of course, there are also issues I’ve read about. Like the case of Rotenberg Educational Center in Massachusetts, where electric shock is regularly used on students with autism. Not to mention revelations about the discredited Bruno Bettleheim, the untrained psychoanalytic “genius” who convinced generations of “experts” that autism is caused by cold, unresponsive mothering. Granted, his work was in the past, but his school for disturbed youth — which has been revealed to have subjected students to physical and emotional abuse — still has defenders. There are plenty of other heart-wrenching and infuriating stories about therapeutic schools and the special education system. I’ll stop now.
Compared to all that, the events at Santangelo Academy are not only believable but incredibly tame. And I need only re-read my friends’ reviews of Compliance to be reminded that people will go to extraordinary lengths to comply with perceived authority figures.
While the characters are what I found most engaging, this is also a solid mystery. The kind I like, with an intriguing “whodunnit,” red herrings, and an intrepid and often floundering sleuth. Read’s mysteries rate among my current favorites, and I look forward to finishing the series.