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Paper Covers Rock


Paper Covers Rock

John Knowles's A SEPARATE PEACE is one of those novels that I enjoyed much more when I read it on my own than when I was assigned it for eighth grade English class. I still remember Knowles's emotional examination of boys' intense but guarded friendships, of accidental death and survivor's guilt, even though I've forgotten most of the details of plot, character and theme.

Jenny Hubbard's PAPER COVERS ROCK seems, in many ways, to be a direct descendent of Knowles's classic. There have been plenty of other boarding school novels published in the intervening years since its release (remember a little place called Hogwarts?), but Hubbard's book shares not only some basic plot points with Knowles's but also a certain atmosphere, a vibe, a willingness to dig deep into the cultures and contradictions of this insular world.

Sixteen-year-old Alex Stromm knows that attending boarding school at The Birches is his best chance to pursue the kind of life he hopes to find for himself. His parents are divorced, his mom largely absent and his dad preoccupied with his own teaching far away. Alex longs to write, poetry especially, and The Birches is a place where a boy who loves words as much as he loves running cross-country can feel at home. It doesn't hurt that his new English teacher is beautiful Miss Dovecott, a recent Princeton graduate who is only five years older than Alex and is the subject not only of his fantasies but also a whole lot of harassment on the part of his classmates.

The year is 1982, after all, and this is a boys' school in North Carolina. Cell phones don't exist, female teachers are a rarity, and homophobia runs rampant. When one of Alex's friends drowns during a seemingly innocent outing, the fallout is immediate, but the real implications are complex and long-lasting, persisting through the school year --- and likely for the rest of Alex's life.

At the heart of Hubbard's impressive debut is a robust examination of the idea of "honor." What is more valuable? To support one's friends or uphold the truth? To pursue one's own passions or protect the status quo? Even as Alex is being challenged by Miss Dovecott to take his writing to new levels, he's being pressured by his best friend to cut ties with his beloved teacher in a particularly devastating way.

Hubbard, who has been a teacher and a poet, is able to confidently articulate the complex relationship between Alex and his teacher, and credibly render his nascent but promising forays into poetry. His voice elicits empathy, practically begs for it. But is it trustworthy?

Both the confident storytelling and narrative ambiguity of PAPER COVERS ROCK --- not to mention its school setting and essential exploration of some fairly hard-hitting contemporary and recent historical themes --- would make Hubbard's novel an ideal choice for school discussions. Here's hoping that teachers assign it, but also that students, just as the previous generation did with A SEPARATE PEACE, find it on their own and connect with it on both an emotional and a literary level.


Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

Paper Covers Rock
by Jenny Hubbard

  • Publication Date: June 12, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Ember
  • ISBN-10: 0385740565
  • ISBN-13: 9780385740562