September Read of the Month: “The Headmaster’s Darlings,” by Katherine Clark

Katherine Clark

Reviewed by Ashley D. Black

Most people who are raised in a small, Southern town would agree that preserving local traditions is of the utmost importance to its residents. At times, however, maintaining a town’s customs can prevent the populace from evolving with the rest of the country both politically and culturally. Those who challenge and encourage progress, moreover, are quickly viewed as outsiders and threats.

Katherine Clark’s The Headmaster’s Darlings explores this dichotomy through the novel’s colorful protagonist, Norman Laney.

Clark constructs Norman as a tribute to one of her high school English teachers, Carl Martin Hames, and if Norman is a carbon copy of Hames, it’s easy to see why Clark chooses to honor him in her first novel series. Norman is larger than life, quite literally and figuratively, and devours culture and food with a ferocious appetite.  His love of great art, literature, and food is infectious for anyone who comes into contact with him.

It’s 1983. Norman is the assistant headmaster at Brook-Haven School, a private school in Mountain Brook, an affluent town outside of Birmingham. He guides students through the collegiate application process and teaches English as well as Art in the 20th century.  At least, those are his official roles.  Unofficially, he recruits minority students to the school, encourages students to attend Ivy League colleges outside the South, and exposing his students to ideas and cultures that are different from those of their own community.  This is the essence of Norman’s role in the text: he is an insider in that he has been accepted by the Mountain Brook elite, yet he is also a covert outsider, subversively challenging the cultural and political landscape of Mountain Brook.

The reader is introduced to Norman amidst the death and possible suicide of Karen Ritchie’s mother.  Karen Ritchie, a senior at Brook-Haven, is the recipient of sympathy for the passing of her mother and for her difficult and allegedly abusive father.  This untimely death reveals Norman’s social standing within both the school and the community.  While supervising students during study hall, Norman receives a phone call from Midge Elmore, who offers both “hospitality” on behalf of the school and gossip.  Norman is thus positioned as the social guide: he models what to do when offering sympathy after a death and what to do when hosting a party, seeking a marriage partner, decorating a house, or touring Europe.

Because of this leadership and cultural literacy, Norman has been accepted as an insider while he’s truly an outsider.  He was not raised in Mountain Brook, and he is “poor,” living with his mother in a small apartment.  His morbid obesity is often the topic of discussion; several characters even suggest he get gastric bypass surgery.  By all Southern measures, Norman should not be accepted into Mountain Brook society, yet he becomes cherished and loved in light of his boisterous personality and knowledge of all things one “should” know.  In Mountain Brook, the appearance of being cultured and educated is more important than actually being cultured and educated; Norman aids his “darlings” accordingly, forming alliances with those in important positions in the community.

These alliances prove essential for Norman’s social and financial survival when Dr. Tom Turbyfill, the headmaster at Brook-Haven, learns that Norman has been offered a position in the English Department at Shelby State, a nearby community college. Turbyfill encourages Norman to take the position, refusing to offer a reason why. He does warn Norman that he holds information on Norman that will be damaging to Norman’s social standing should it become public.  What information does the headmaster possibly have on Norman which would lead to his resignation from Brook-Haven?  Is it the numerous alumni he has ushered out of Mountain Brook to the Ivy Leagues?  Is it the abortion he helped procure for a former student?  Is it the student Norman guided to a self-acceptance of sexual identity?  Any of these offenses, among others, could have Norman run out of Brook-Haven and, ultimately, Mountain Brook.  Conveniently for Norman, however, his alliances on the school board preserve his position as an essential member of the Brook-Haven and Mountain Brook communities.

The novel’s conflict materializes in the third chapter. The remaining nine chapters, which progress by the academic calendar, together with the epilogue, do little to build suspense as to whether any scandalous information will be publicized or whether Norman will ultimately leave Brook-Haven.  Several chapters act as vignettes, which do little to construct a cohesive plot, though they effectively develop Norman’s character more fully.

The development of Norman’s character, in fact, is essential if readers are to sympathize with him amid the looming threat of his possible resignation.  Yet when the information Dr. Turbyfill holds is revealed in the final chapter, readers will likely be disappointed that the character development had nothing to do with it.  Nor will readers be surprised when the Brook-Haven School Board chooses not to renew Dr. Turbyfill’s contract but to promote Norman to headmaster.

The Headmaster’s Darlings is a worthy summer or pleasure read.  It’s filled with colorful, descriptive language and Southern Gothicism reminiscent of Fannie Flagg or Flannery O’Connor.  For native Alabamians, such as myself, Clark’s representation of Birmingham and Mountain Brook seems accurate yet gracious, and locals will enjoy her allusions to real eateries and hot spots.  Although the novel’s grand revelation disappoints, Norman’s charm makes it all worth reading.

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