Posted on November 20, 2014 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Geography Club (2004) by Brent Hartinger.
Here be spoilers.
It’s refreshing that gay teens are being actively represented in young adult literature, but disheartening that they’re not represented well. Geography Club by Brent Hartinger is an example of this.
The book is told from the viewpoint of sixteen-year-old Russel Middlebrook. Like many gay youth, Russel is anxious to express who he is, fearful of how others will react if his true nature becomes known. He has to content himself by speaking to other gay teens online. One night, Russell discovers that a chat room friend is actually a handsome classmate named Kevin Land. Russel and Kevin quickly find other gay teens on campus and almost instinctively form a support group. To give themselves a regular place to meet, the group decides to create an after-school geography club. They assume their classmates are so uninterested in studying maps and distant places that no one but them will ever be members, thereby ensuring their anonymity. The rest of the novel is a series of coming out clichés conveyed in a writing style which is often undeveloped and repetitive.
But Geography Club is unsatisfying for reasons beyond its voice, starting with the complete absence of parents or any other relevant adults. (This is a pet peeve of mine with YA fiction in general!) We never see or hear a thing about Russel's parents until the last chapter when he dismisses them in a single sentence – explaining that they play no role in the book because they play no role in his life. Now I understand that having a parent-free existence is a recurring fantasy for most young adults, but it’s rarely their reality. One of the major reasons gay teens don't come out is because they fear rejection from their parents — yet this anxiety is never addressed in The Geography Club. Russell and in his friends reside is a space without mothers and fathers, the very people who can be the gay teen’s greatest champion or worst nightmare.
I also didn't buy Russel's romantic relationship with Kevin Land. In the first chapter, Kevin bullies Russel and they only "fall in love" when it's revealed that they’re both gay. But like the rest of us, affection among teens is usually based on more than mere convenience. We rarely see Russel and Kevin interact one-on-one, and their relationship is defined almost entirely by acting straight around the school jocks they secretly abhor.
But honestly, the most troubling part of the book was the very concept behind the formation of the geography club. The idea of gay teens having to hide in plain sight, behind the guise of a boring after-school activity, just reinforces the outmoded belief that they should have to hide at all. The meetings of the book's central characters revolves almost entirely around how to stay hidden. When the club is dissolved at the end of the book and replaced with a gay/straight/bisexual alliance, Russel still revels in the fact that the members can claim they’re straight. In my opinion, the underlying message for gay teens is a dangerous one — stay hidden, stay quiet, be ashamed of who you are. Considering the challenges gay youth face in the world, this important topic deserves better treatment.
Geography Club is the first book in the Russel Middlebrook series.