A Review (kind of) of the Nowhere High series, by Jesse Maguire
Ivy (Ballantine), 1989-1992
By REBECCA, October 17, 2012
Sometimes I feel like Crunchings & Munchings really exists so that I can talk about all the ’90s-era books series that I loved so much as a kid but that never really slotted into “classic YA” enough that anyone talks about them (I won’t speak for you, Tessa, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the ’90s figure pretty heavily into your C&M joy too). In that tradition, then, today I bring you the Nowhere High series—a series that, as far as I know, none of my friends growing up ever read, making it impossible for me to describe any of their hair as being “the color of eucalyptus tree bark—sort of silvery brown” and have them know what I was talking about (6). Anyhoosier, the Nowhere High books were a staple of my ’90s childhood, but much to my shock, when I tried to look the books up to write this review, I saw that there were a seventh and eighth book in the series that I never read. I must get my hands on them immediately!
The deal is this: when TJ McAllister moves to rural Pennsylvania from L.A., he finds himself on the wrong side of a group of pants-snatching, mud-slinging dudes after his first day at Ernest Norwell (“Nowhere”) High. TJ soon meets Caroline Buchanan (Caro), the girlfriend of the school badass who doesn’t seem to care about anyone; Josh Hickham, one-time pants-stealer but artist at heart; Darcy Jenner, boarding school reject whose passion for pranks doesn’t fit with her good-girl image; Alison Laurel (Mouse), Caro’s childhood best friend with a passion for music and thrift store magic; and a few other misfits. They commandeer an abandoned railroad station on the outskirts of town and turn Split River Station into more of a home than most of them have. They are, so the cover of book one tells me, “Hanging out and holding on . . . together.”
This series has many of the things that I love about YA fiction combined with many of the things that I love about ’90s movies:
1. A hideout! Number one wish from middle and high school?: that I could have had an amazing abandoned railroad station hideout with my friends! (Well, maybe, like, number two wish.) Split River Station is awesome, and throughout the series all the characters run away to it, hook up in it, and break down in it.
2. A rag-tag bunch of misfits! My favorite thing about the series is that the characters are all so different that none of them would be very likely to be friends in high school—you know, The Breakfast Club vibe. “Looking around the cafeteria, [Caro] saw that the rest of the school was neatly divided into groups” (40-41). When they’re together at Split River Station, though, none of what is expected of them by social group matters. So Josh can just do his art, Darcy doesn’t have to be nice, Mouse isn’t a freak, Caro is more than her looks, and TJ . . . well, TJ is a freaking mensch and I’m sure he would be whatever social group he was in.
3. Small town life! Many of the best ’90s books and movies are about kids chafing against their small towns. And it seems to me that it’s mostly in small towns that the high school stereotypes are the strongest, since there isn’t much mixing or variety, so it makes sense that they are the settings for much angst. It’s the same in this small town in Pennsylvania. Everyone knows each other so it’s hard to get past reputations, and new kids stick out forever. In a way, actually, the first book in the series, Nowhere High, reminded me a bit of a 1989 (mid-Atlantic) version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, one of my favorite books of all time.No, really! I mean, obviously, it’s not anywhere near as good as The Outsiders, but there is a sense of desperation in the characters, and that shade of hard-edged girls and by-turns distant and violent guys that seems familiar from Hinton’s world. Especially Holly Vickers (such a good name!), the twin sister of one of the school bad boys—she smokes, chews gum loudly, fights, bullies people into dating her, and uses enough hairspray to fell a llama.
4. Early ’90s fashion! So, I’m going to do a whole post sometime soon about my favorite descriptions of fashion from YA lit (send me your nominations!) and Mouse in Nowhere High definitely ranks. Caro wears “a tank top, a big khaki shirt to go over it, and a pair of jeans. . . . She clipped on some earrings, pushed a couple of bracelets on, and pulled on a pair of boots” (62). Khaki shirt! Clip-on earrings! Mouse shops for the school dance at a thrift shop and she is clearly a master:
“Alison had unearthed a peasant blouse, heavy with old lace on the neck and sleeves, and an ancient cocktail dress with a stiff strapless bodice and a sequined skirt. Curious, Josh watched as she carefully folded the ugly bodice down and held the blouse up over the skirt. Then she took an old fringed shawl in green, gold, and brown, and with a quick twitch of her fingers, flung it about the skirt at a rakish angle—and suddenly there was a striking outfit” (143).
5. Good, old-fashioned, interpersonal drama! Friends, I never thought I’d say it, sprung full-grown from the bookheads of Anne Rice and J.R.R Tolkien that I am, but I am a little para-super-extra-ed out. I’m sick of prefixes in general, as a matter of fact, and so returning to this mundane saga of pretty basic teenage problems was something of a palate cleanser. People have fights, feel inadequate, want to make art, get pregnant, fall in love, hope, eat, and not a whole heck of a lot else. It’s like I’ve been so supernaturaled-out that when I was rereading the series I kept thinking, like, oh, now TJ and Josh are going to turn out to be creatures and—no, wait, and ah, I bet Caro’s eucalyptus hair is really a Medusa—oh, yeah, not this time. And I didn’t miss it at all.
So, what are your all-time, top-five, desert-island ’90s reads? Inquiring minds want to know.