Estimated Elapsed Time: 2 weeks
Andy Jenkins is totally one of the gang at Sweet Valley even though the first time we’d ever heard of him was offhandedly in the last book. He’s also one of the only black students at SVH, but he’s a super good student, especially when it comes to science. That’s why he’s won a special scholarship to spend the summer studying marine biology at the Monterey Bay Acquarium. He’s thrilled about this, and so is his friend, Neil Freemount, and his girlfriend, Tracy Gilbert (who the book wants you to know is also black).
Not everyone is super thrilled about Andy’s existence, though. One day after school, Andy opens his locker and finds all sorts of garbage stuffed in there, as well as a note that says “Go back to Africa where you belong.” Charlie Cashman is likely the dude behind this stupid, racist prank, because he hassles Andy in the parking lot of the Dairi Burger a few days later, and then Tracy discovers that all four of her tires have been slashed in the parking lot, too. Neil witnesses all of this but is nervous about pointing fingers, yet he’s also confused as to why Andy doesn’t seem to want to report it.
Secretly, Neil is feeling conflicted about the whole thing. Charlie Cashman’s father and Neil’s dad both work at Patman Canning, and they both make fairly overtly racist comments about their black supervisor, Willis. Neil hopes that his dad is just saying these things because of Mr. Cashman, but deep down, he doesn’t believe that to be true. Things worsen on this front when Mr. Cashman is fired, and Neil’s dad says a bunch more racist things.
What’s more alarming to Neil is that Andy doesn’t seem to want his help. At one point, Neil tries to suggest that Andy think of what Martin Luther King, Jr. would do in the situation, and Andy (rightfully) loses his shit at him. The two part ways, and there’s genuine tension on both ends. Neil feels like Andy is being racist towards whites; they can’t all be bad, right? This angers him, and he starts to resent how Andy shuts him out.
Things continue to escalate: Charlie purposely trips Andy in the hall and makes some stupid comments. The two boys fight, and Mr. Collins breaks it up. He pulls Neil aside and asks if Charlie started it because Andy is black, and Neil sort of shrugs his way out of the situation. He feels increasing resentment about his perceived persecution by Andy.
The culmination of these increasingly violent acts comes when Neil and Penny see a movie and are leaving the theater one night. They see Andy’s father’s car being attacked by Charlie and his gang, and then, when Penny goes to call the police, Neil watches in horror as they pull Andy out of the car and start beating him. Neil runs over to save the unconscious Andy, but instead ends up hitting him, just once, after being pressured by the group to do so. He immediately flees the scene and then lies to protect himself.
When Neil finally comes clean, it’s because Charlie Cashman has basically blackmailed or threatened him to lie about it, and he can’t live with the guilt any more. He comes clean in the cafeteria one day, after Andy has apologized for being angry, and everyone is appalled that Neil could ever do such a thing. It’s clear that his friendship with Andy is over, and it looks like his relationship with Penny, too.
Andy is walking home from school and is being trailed by Charlie and his gang. While he doesn’t see them, Neil does, and he runs over to stand with Andy, despite the fact that Andy clearly hates him. Presented with Neil and Andy, Charlie and his gang back down.
The B-Plot is nearly non-existent but basically serves to further the plot about the racist shit happening at SVH and set up the plot for the next book about a female quarterback. Liz asks students what they’d like to change about their school and is SHOCKED when they have serious answers for her about racism, sexism, and other stuff that’s hard to think about.
- Things to change at SVH: Olivia wants 3-day school weeks; Penny wants to outlaw Pi Beta Alpha, Manuel wants a non-white perspective of history; Jade Wu wants pizza ovens (?); Dana wants less focus on boys’ sports; and someone wants girls to be able to try out for the football team.
- Mr. Archer is the marine biology teacher at SVH, Miss Jacobi is the sociology teacher.
- Neil and Charlie listen to the Rolling Stones in his car
- “Privately, Elizabeth had thought of it as just a fun thing to do. More soft drink machines, shorter classes, better food in the cafeteria: those were the responses she had expected. But maybe there was more dissatisfaction at Sweet Valley High than she thought.” (7)
- “It was almost as if Andy held a grudge against every single student at Sweet Valley High because of Charlie’s bigotry. It was true that many of them hadn’t ever faced real hardships or discrimination, but that didn’t make them terrible people.” (40)
- “‘Everyone is completely shocked,’ Penny continued. ’I just can’t believe something like that could happen here. I thought it only happened in big cities, like New York or L.A., but I guess I was naive.’” (84) HAS EVERYONE LOST THEIR DAMN MIND?
A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:
This was a hard book to recap, and it’s actually a hard one to write a critical analysis of, too. It’s like so many other books that are published about hard stuff like racism and racialized violence and white guilt: well-meaning, completely misguided, and about as subtle as an anvil. There’s also the fact that this book was written in 1990, which means that the lens we view it through now is fairly different.
Some thoughts, in bullet points because why not?
- This is a classic case of a story about racism being told through the eyes of a white person. What’s interesting here is that unlike many of the other books in the series, we never spend a minute inside Andy’s head, despite the fact that we are inside both Neil and Elizabeth’s heads at several points, as well as Penny’s. So, we spend a lot of time being taught about racism but never actually hear from anyone experiencing it.
- There’s a scene in which the sociology teacher tries a social experiment on her class, treating those with light-colored eyes as second-class citizens in an attempt to teach them about discrimination. Again: well-meaning, but totally fucked up. All these white kids get to go back to being the dominant majority as soon as the class is over. Are we, as readers, supposed to feel bad for Jessica because she’s uncomfortable for a class period? How can this possibly compare to a lifetime of living it?
- Throughout the book, there are several mentions of feeling guilt over being privileged. This is white guilt, and it’s very real–but it’s never named or explored. And why would it be? This is Sweet Valley.
- When Andy apologizes to Neil for being angry, my jaw actually dropped. It takes a lot to shock me when it comes to these books, but it was one of those moments that was so misplaced and so incredibly wrong (and I’m speaking of being unintentionally wrong, because it’s clear that both the reader and Neil are supposed to see this as the right thing for Andy to do) that it defies logic. Andy should be angry. He has every right to be. And to have him apologize for it? Sends. The. Wrong. Message.
Look, I understand that this is a Sweet Valley High novel, and it’s not supposed to be super great literature or provide its readers a really nuanced, in-depth look at structural racism. It can’t have been easy to be that ghost writer writing this didactic novel about racism that’s supposed to leave its readers (especially the white ones, and maybe only the white ones) feeling good about they know racism is bad.
I need something to cleanse my brain after this one, and I somehow doubt it’s going to be SVH #70: Ms. Quarterback.