CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 4 . . . . October 13, 2006
Chris Stren is not having a good time in Grade Eight. He loathes his schoolwork and his teacher; his mother is always on his case about something; and his best friend won't talk to him anymore. Quiet and shy, he feels as though his life is floating away. Then Clouds McFadden, the new boy in his small-town school, rocks his dull world. The brash and articulate Clouds formulates a plot to overthrow the leadership of the school in order to provide voice to the student body. He gathers Chris and a few other Grade Eights to become a group called the Revolutionists. Each member is charged to perform an Act of Dissent based on historical precedents, such as Mahatma Gandhi's acts of non-resistance and Woodward and Berstein’s exposure of the Watergate scandal. However, the Revolutionist’s plan goes awry when Clouds assumes the role of a dictator and threatens to use violence to achieve his goals. When Chris discovers that Clouds is attempting to emulate Vladimir Lenin, he must find the courage to take control of the Revolutionist project and save the school.
Can You Spell Revolution? is the story of a Grade Eight boy’s sociological experiment gone wrong. Beam's novel portrays an adolescent project that has a powerful, constructive vision for a school in which the students are not permitted to have a say in the running of daily affairs. As Chris comments, “We weren’t allowed to decide anything, beyond what kind of food we were going to have at the class Christmas party later in the week, and even then Mrs. Topper was insisting that we have fruitcake instead of chocolate.” The Revolutionists envision wresting rightful control from the tyrannical teachers and principal of their school, although Clouds takes events down a twisted road leading to violence. The story ends on a positive note, however, as the students create and implement a new vision for the school, including innovative lesson plans and a student-run assembly. Although the narrative, which is largely driven by dialogue, is somewhat lacking in subtlety, the final product works to create an interesting story of social change that seems realistic for young adults to emulate in their own classrooms.
The novel’s characters are well-drawn and lifelike. Chris, for instance, begins as a shy boy who is inept at the rules of friendship. When he is given a cause in which to believe, he learns how to become a leader and even faces off with the charismatic Clouds. In another example of superior characterization, the Magnas, a female gang, is presented as a mixture of bullies, followers, and those trying to keep the peace, such as Chris’s crush and fellow Revolutionist, Susan. The book does a fine job at relaying the politics involved in adolescent girl relationships. As well, Clouds is an interesting and complex character, although his sudden reversal at the novel’s end is perhaps too sudden and tidy. In general, however, Beam’s characters provide an accurate feel for student life in an average small-town Canadian school.
Can You Spell Revolution? is an effective commentary both to students and teachers about the dangers of an educational system that does not permit its student body to have a role in its own affairs. For example, the book’s ridicule of redundant assemblies will strike a chord in many adolescents. Although the school’s handbook states that the reason for assemblies is “to celebrate the successes of the students in all facets of their education and lives,” this novel offers a humourous glimpse at the reality of many school assemblies: “What usually happened was an endlessly tedious speech by Mr. Dorfman, a.k.a. the Penguin, full of torturous pauses and repetitive statements: ‘We want the students of this school--’ (three second pause) ‘--to enjoy--’ (three second pause) ‘the success and enjoyment--’ (three second pause) ‘--of success at this school.’” The book’s portrayal of empty rituals enforced by a detached staff highlights the significance of schools in which the students have no say in their own destinies. Can You Spell Revolution? suggests a bright vision for how a school administration ought to look, including caring teachers, innovative teaching techniques, and a vision for student involvement and leadership.
This novel presents a compelling case to students for the necessity of history to achieve such lofty goals as a meaningful school life (although, unfortunately, no reference is made to Canadian history). History is portrayed as a complex character that the students must address in order to maintain a peaceful, educational, and enjoyable school climate. Clouds, for instance, illustrates the dangers of not paying attention to history as he looms over his fellow pupils as a potential second Lenin. Interestingly, the novel points out that the Revolutionists appear to be unable to escape history. As Susan complains to Chris, history follows her around “like a shadow” as she acts in the role of Elizabeth I. For instance, she studies Elizabeth I’s strategy of playing men off each other in order to retain her allies. As Susan emulates Elizabeth’s moves by pretending to like a boy in order to keep certain Magnas on her side, the situation grows more complicated than she dreamed it could be, as she struggles with her own real-life Robert Dudley and Sir Babington. As the novel draws to its climax, the negative consequences of history appear to be unavoidable. Clouds, on his relentless tramp toward domination of the school, reiterates: “History must be repeated.” However, Chris realizes that he can influence the course of history and must do so in order not to repeat its negative lesson. As he comments: “History had to be changed.” History’s complexity is illustrated quite well throughout the narrative. By the novel’s conclusion, Chris and his friends realize that the past is an influential story of murder and intrigue that contains the power to affect the present.
Can You Spell Revolution? is a great choice for young adult readers. Although the novel contains quite a bit of detailed historical information, particularly in its history of the Bolsheviks, these particulars are presented in an accessible manner. Teachers and librarians who are concerned about student voice will be interested in procuring Can You Spell Revolution? for their students. However, those who prefer to maintain a solitary leadership in their classrooms will want to avoid this story.
Pam Klassen-Dueck is a graduate student in the English department at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.