Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Wave by Todd Strasser

Anyone who thinks the Nazi party's rise to power in the 1930s and the Holocaust could never happen again should grab a copy of The Wave: The Classroom Experiment That Went Too Far by Todd Strasser, the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for Children's/Young Adult literature in 1981. The Wave is based on the true story of Ron Jones, who conducted an experiment in his Palo Alto, Calif., high school history class in the late 1960s when students asked how the German people could claim to have known little or nothing about the mass extermination of the Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

Strasser's fictionalized telling of the experiment centers on history teacher Ben Ross and student/school newspaper editor Laurie Saunders. Mr. Ross seems to be a hands-on, show-don't-tell kind of teacher, and he thinks the experiment will get his students involved in the class discussion about the Holocaust. He decides to create a movement called The Wave, whose motto is "Strength Through Discipline, Strength Through Community, Strength Through Action." Surprisingly, the students obey Mr. Ross's orders, and the movement catches on.
"Now that we understand Discipline and Community," he told the class, "Action is our next lesson. Ultimately, discipline and community are meaningless without action. Discipline gives you the right to action. A disciplined group with a goal can take action to achieve it. Class, do you believe in The Wave?"

There was a split-second hesitation, and then the class rose in unison and answered in what seemed like a single voice. "Mr. Ross, yes!"

Mr. Ross nodded. "Then you must take action! Never be afraid to act on what you believe. As The Wave you must act together like a well-oiled machine. Through hard work and allegiance to each other, you will learn faster and accomplish more. But only if you support one another, and only if you work together and obey the rules, can you ensure the success of The Wave." (pages 59-60)
While Laurie is the main character of the book, readers are introduced to several other students, who basically symbolize the nerds, the jocks, and the losers. The Wave becomes popular because all the students feel like equals and don't have to worry about trying to fit into a certain clique. The movement grows so large it encompasses the entire school, and there are membership cards, arm bands, and rallies. It becomes more than Mr. Ross ever imagined, and even he is caught up in all the excitement. Laurie is worried that the movement is going too far, and when students start being bullied to join The Wave, she realizes it must stop. But how?

At just 138 pages, I finished The Wave in one sitting. I was on the edge of my seat wondering how it would all play out. There wasn't much time for major character development, but Mr. Ross, Laurie, and her boyfriend, David, are fairly well developed. You can see a transformation in the other characters, but you're not really given a chance to get to know them outside of their interactions with Laurie and in class. However, it's not really necessary to get to know all the characters to understand the implications of the experiment.

It's hard to believe The Wave is based on a true story. It's not clear how much of the book is fact, but I don't think it matters. But it's important to understand that not everyone who supported Hitler was as crazy as he was. I'm not talking about the high-ranking SS officers (Himmler, Goering, Goebbels--I believe they and the others in Hitler's inner circle were just as disturbed as he was). I'm talking about the average citizen. Some of them were swept up in the excitement of the parades and rallies and Hitler's animated speeches about improving Germany's post-World War I economy. Others were too afraid to publicly oppose the Nazis. My maternal grandmother, for instance, lived in Germany during the war, and she told me many years ago before she died that they had to listen to Hitler's speeches on the radio. If they didn't listen to him, or they criticized what he said, someone could report them to the Gestapo. I'm not making excuses for these people, but The Wave shows, albeit on a much smaller scale, how easy it is for such movements to get out of hand, how easy it is for people to be manipulated.

The Wave gives you a lot to ponder, and it's one of those books that sticks with you long after you finish reading. The book shows step by step how Mr. Ross begins and perpetuates the movement, but I leave those details for you to discover on your own. The Wave is shocking, and it makes you take a closer look at your own beliefs. How strong are you to stand up for what is right, even if it means being ostracized or worse?

[The Wave was released as a movie in Germany last year. The setting was changed from the U.S. to Germany, and the experiment emerges from a discussion about whether modern Germany would allow a dictatorship.]

The Wave is the 15th book I've read for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Wave.


Jenners said...

Sounds very very interesting. I would love to know more about the real story so I'll check out your link. I imagine it would be a thought-provoking book -- and a bit scary!

Sandy Nawrot said...

It brings up some scary questions, and really requires us to turn the question on ourselves. It is easy to criticize, but unless you are there it is hard to imagine how easily we get sucked in. We can easily find examples in modern day, only not at the same disastrous consequences. This is a nice diversion of a WWII novel. I wonder if we can get the movie here with subtitles?

The Reading Momster said...

It sounds very interesting and a bit scary too! I will definitely check this one out!

Staci said...

I'm already too aware that this could happen again!!!

Unknown said...

I read this book as a HS student, after watching the after-school special. (Remember those!?) It is on the summer reading list for 8th graders at the school where I teach, also. I consider The Wave a classic. Unfortunately the film is not available on DVD yet, because I recall it as being very powerful and true to the story.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

Most of the experiments that have studied mind control and setting up mock situations and movements like this one don't have very promising results. This sounds like a good book and the links you provided were very interesting. Funny how afterward no one wants to come forward and talk about the experiment.

Ana S. said...

"But it's important to understand that not everyone who supported Hitler was as crazy as he was." Very good point. It's very easy to say "I'd never have let it happen" from the outside, but the fact is that none of us can predict what we would or wouldn't have done if we had been an average German citizen in those circumstances. I'll have to check out this book.

Blodeuedd said...

Scary and creepy. It should be read cos of that. I must look it up

Serena said...

This has to be one of the best finds at the library sale to date. I will have to borrow your copy. Wow.

Alyce said...

This sounds really good. I'm off to see if my library has it.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Wow Anna. This sounds amazing ... or amazingly creepy. It will be on my Friday Finds this week.

Unknown said...

Wow - This is now on my TBR list. Thanks.

Sandra said...

An interesting story and a well written review. Lots to think about there.

Anna said...

Jenners: It was a little scary. I want to know more details about the real story, but haven't seen enough to completely satisfy my curiosity.

Sandy: I don't know about getting the movie. I should check that out, though.

Veens: Let me know if you get a chance to read it.

Staci: Very true. I just hadn't seen a story like this one before.

Elizabeth: I remember the after-school specials, but I don't remember this one. I never would have heard of this book if it hadn't caught my eye at the library sale.

Nicole: It's certainly an interesting topic for discussion. I was very young when this book came out and I wasn't even born when it happened for real. I wonder what the news stories of that time said.

Nymeth: I really wish my grandparents and uncle were still alive. I'd want to ask them about that.

Blodeuedd: I hope you get a chance to read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Serena: You know where to find it!

Alyce: I can't wait to hear what you think of it.

Heather: It is both amazing and creepy. I hope you get to read it at some point.

Shellie: You're welcome. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the book.

Sandra: Thanks. I'm hoping Serena reads it soon so we can have a lunchtime discussion. If I'd know what it was going to be like, I would have suggested it for our book club.

Darlene said...

Anna, this sounds really interesting. I've never heard of it. I'll have to see if it's available here. Seems well worth reading. I agree that those of us who weren't there really can't say how we'd react. It's a lot easier when you're not in the heart of something. I can definitely see people being too scared to oppose the government though. Great review.

christina said...

I've heard about experiments done in classrooms but didn't know THIS book existed. Added to my list.

Anna said...

Dar: I found it on Amazon, so you should be able to get it if you're interested.

Christina: I was clueless until I found this book, and if it hadn't been for the cool cover catching my eye just as I was getting ready to pay for my books at the library sale, I never would have heard of it.