Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart

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Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart
Carolrhoda Lab, 2018

This flawed YA realistic novel, reminiscent of recent events at real life St Paul’s, is a timely look at sexual assault and the silence that surrounds it.

When white 15 year-old narrator Sam Barker gets a scholarship to elite Edwards Academy, she records her perspectives in an anonymous blog.  She is stunned on her first evening when the girls in her dorm are subjected to a body check and she is told she “needs to improve.” As well as this hazing, she finds that, despite the school’s honor code, drinking, and smoking are also tacitly accepted.

She develops a crush on rich, popular senior, Scully Chapman, also white, so when the Head Girl matches her with Scully for the Mixer dance she is thrilled. The reader might find her strangely unquestioning of why this would happen, particularly given her low self-esteem. After a couple more dates, inevitably she goes to Scully’s room and he rapes her.

Scared to go to a teacher or the police, she takes her story to Harper, a black investigative journalist. As Sam pursues justice, she is vilified online and ostracized by Edwards students, but the new Sam, forged in steel by her quest, persists in wanting to attend the school to achieve her dream of going to Harvard Law School.

I found Sam a slightly unconvincing character. We are told that her self esteem is crushed by the body check, but the author doesn’t show credibly her evolution from this naive “Firstie” to crusader for vengeance. Similarly, her friendship with “topaz”-skinned Gracie, her roommate, is crucial to the plot but I never felt the tight bond that Sam tells us they have.

There is a final plot twist which is both unnecessary and actually undermines the main argument of the novel. Though justice is served, at least to an extent, the novel unwittingly gives weight to a counter argument that it never addresses. While I wouldn’t say this makes the novel unacceptable, I feel that, along with the weak characterization and tendency to tell not show, there are bound to be better novels to meet the #MeToo moment. Nonetheless, readers might appreciate a young woman taking on the system when history suggests the odds are against her.

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