New Releases: Trapped by Michael Northrop
Thursday, February 17, 2011
You're sixteen. Middle of the pack, not especially picked on, not especially popular. You go to high school every day, hang out with friends a lot - mostly doing nothing - and think about girls (or boys). You think about the future, but only vaguely. Being successful at thirty or forty means nothing, you want something that snaps the mold now.
What you want is a disaster. Nobody needs to die, but everyone needs to be scared just enough to show how not scared you are. Adults can't be around, because you need a vaccuum of authority into which you can step. You need a situation where everyone's real self shines through: sports-field heroes are revealed as cowards, beauty queens as insecure, and geeks like you? Your natural heroism shines through.
It'd also help if the cute freshman noticed.
Without being funny - or signing myself up to counselling - I know I had this fantasy, and I suspect I'm not the only one. Please, please pleeeeease a tiny earthquake or storm or something, so that all the teachers are gone and there's just me to lead everyone in 4th period Biology to safety. (Granted, in my fantasies, I had generously granted myself both survival skills and upper-body strength.) Being in the midwest, Apocalyptic weather patterns were nothing new - and hell, my home town was even built on a (long dormant) fault line. I didn't want anyone to die.... I just wanted a bit of panic.
(Oddly enough, by 18, this was replaced by "wait 'til the reunion" fantasy. Which was no more future-facing, but it did acknowledge that the window for natural disaster had closed.)
Michael Northrop's Trapped is that fantasy, explored in a depressingly realistic fashion. Seven high school students are stuck in a rural New England school when a blizzard strikes. As time passes, what begins as a lark swiftly turns into real danger. The snow piles up, the tension mounts and something has to give.
The protagnist, Scotty Weems, is a perfectly-constructed EveryKid. His defining trait - in high school terms - is that he plays basketball. Not to a jaw-dropping caliber, but enough to make the team. He's got two close friends and a score of acquaintances. He's neither popular nor unpopular - just one of those guys.
More impressively (at least as far as Mr. Northrop is concerned), Scotty's no hero. He wants to be - just as I did at 16 - but is no more qualified than any other normal kid to handle circumstances like these. He's hungry, but he doesn't want to break the lock on the cafeteria door, because he knows that's against the rules (and more importantly, he might get thrown off the team). He wants to stand up for his friend, but he knows his friend is being a jackass. All the social and moral codes that a teenager wrestles with every day are exacerbated by the disastrous circumstances. Scotty's keen to do the right thing, but he's never sure what it is.
The situation is made more disconcerting to Scotty by the mix of the seven trapped kids. He's got his two best friends with him (whew), but there are also two girls (and one is really pretty!), a scary delinquent and a creepy loner. As the external pressure mounts, the kids fall in and out of their normal social patterns. One of the most interesting details in the book is that, whenever panic sets in, the kids all split up into their pre-storm social groups. It is only when they're relaxed (rarely) or resigned (more frequently) that they form into a single group. The author does show how the socially-defined layers and labels are stripped away under pressure - all the kids are basically good guys, they just needed the chance to meet - but carefully avoids the sort of Utopian Breakfast Club silliness that frequently plagues this sort of book. Scotty nails it at one point. Thinking (optimistically) about the future, he decides that, just maybe, everyone here will now think of him not as "that basketball guy", but "an ok guy". Even if they all pull through, there's no happily ever after - just a slightly more respectful status quo.
Not only does Mr. Northrup avoid making it a Disney After School Special, but he also keeps it from becoming an escapist fantasy. Scotty's initial excitement about being stuck with that Hot Freshman soon fades under the relentless reality of wearing the same clothes for a week, pooping in a bucket and dining on frozen pudding. His major concern at the start is that he's got a pimple (what will she think?!). Within days, everyone's ravaged skin is a throwaway line, and completely unimportant compared to the real dangers at hand.
Without going further into the details - and the book's resolution - Trapped shines a grim light on teenage escapism. This is a grim book but an oddly optimistic one: when the shit hits the fan, these kids might not be heroes, but they are "ok". And, given the circumstances, that's not bad at all.