Having been a part of the counter-culture of high school arts kids (albeit as theater geek as opposed to a band nerd) I thought I had a pretty good impression of the band experience. Of course, I never went to a high school with an actual marching band, and definitely not one where the role of drum major was such a hotly contested and fought over title as in Jennifer Echols’ Major Crush. And even if I had, I hardly think the experience would have been as entertaining.
Virginia Sauter’s given up the beauty-pageant circuit and the majorette leotard and embraced the drums (her true love), short hair (so much easier to deal with) and a nose piercing (pure, beauty queen rebellion). Unfortunately she has to share drum major duty with Drew Morrow: boyfriend of one (or both) of the Reardon twins; hot, crush-worthy boy; and all around pain. According to the old band teacher, Mr. O’Toole, Virginia and Drew tied (vote-wise) for the position, but rumors is that either Virginia slept with him to win the honor of the drum major role, or that Drew—the sole drum major from the year before—had been voted out for acting superior only to have O’Toole refuse to turn the whole job over to a girl. Their unresolved differences and resentments with each other lead to an antagonistic partnership with Virginia hiding Drew’s band shoes (fully knowing that an improper appearance will earn him a dressing down from his father), and Drew ignoring Virginia’s abilities when it comes to their job.
The result is a discordant and disorganized band, something the new band teacher, Mr. Rush, is adamant about changing. Whether he needs to employee some pop psychology—or just a few well placed cuss words—this band will the best it can possibly be, and if that doesn’t include Drew or Virginia then so be it. By threatening to hand the job over to Clayton Porridge, he’s got them acting like a team and adding a sexy, little dance dip to their Major routine. Too bad all this enforced touching is turning Virginia’s tiny little crush on Drew into a major one.
Reader, don’t be fooled by the cutesiness of the cartoon cover, Major Crush is a sharp-witted tale for teens and adults alike. Echols does not pull any punches with her humor or her subject matter, allowing her teen characters to make dark, age appropriate jokes even while confronting the serious issues of sexism and racism that exist within the school. Virginia’s femininity is treated like a detriment to her position (before Mr. Rush took over the band), and used as an excuse to ignore her. Instead of turning this into an opportunity to cast Drew’s more masculine responses to certain situations in a harsh light, Echols’ makes it clear that one is no better than the other. Virginia’s quiet, one-on-one talks with individual band members are just as effective as Drew’s commanding presence, each reaching the band in a different way.
Echols handles the ingrained racism within the school almost as deftly, with the thematic arc faltering only a little. It makes sense to have Mr. Rush act as the outside catalyst to spur the school to realize that the segregated Homecoming Queen/Miss Victory titles needed to be combined; he’d just moved to the town and could see with fresh eyes what those who’d lived there for ever might have missed. Casting the Reardon Twins as the only holdouts against the change, however, weakened the possibility of a more in-depth exploration of the school’s tensions and made them out to be too evil for words. The internal racism that Allison (Virginia’s African-American best friend) displays towards Luther’s (another African-American Student) clothing choices and way of acting is glossed over as well as that he feels towards her due to her wealth and “acceptance” in the white pageant society. Yes, they do become friends and love interests, but neither ever seems to really confront these issues.
Of course, given that this is a first person narrative told entirely from Virginia’s point of view, it is entirely possible that Allison and Luther’s conversations take place “off screen.” As it is their story arc is secondary to Virginia’s growth and acceptance of herself, her parents, and her place in the world. No one is perfect in Jennifer Echols’ world including her narrator who makes the common high school mistakes of crushing after the guy you can’t have and hurting/using the guy can (but don’t want). Virginia is confused and angry, and the result of these emotions is expressed in the way she acts out, abuses her friendship with Walter (her best male friend), and views her parents. Unlike many teen novels, these actions are reasonable—even expected—and never reach a point where they can be viewed as over the top.
Drew’s reactions to his own home situation, the responsibility placed on him, and the possible loss of his own dreams have just as much truth. Although his situation is viewed through Virginia’s eyes, their relationship allows us to understand his sometimes autocratic actions. Having been placed in the defacto role of parent/provider by his own parents, it makes sense that he would rebel by making childish decisions elsewhere (e.g. dating one of the Reardon Twins despite the fact that everyone knows they are trouble).
This is not to say that the parents are the “bad guys” in this book. Their actions and reactions are as real as their children’s even if they’re not given a lot of page time to explain the whys and hows. While this could be viewed as a short-coming of the novel—much like the use of racism—it really is the result of this being a fully realized world built around Virginia and Drew’s story. The only two-dimensional characters to exist within the pages are the Reardon Twins who solely occupy the role of villain and never advance beyond it. Even when their current behavior is given context, it doesn’t explain their past actions or make them anymore sympathetic. Truly though, this is a slight complaint in an overall wonderful and engaging story.
If you’re looking for a sweet romance, snappy dialogue and well-rounded characters, you can find Major Crush here and here. If you want to read more about Jennifer Echols (and maybe bug her a little about writing Walter’s story), you can find her here and here.