Detention Land by Susan Orion is a wholly unique and affecting young adult novel about Roger Prism, who’s trapped in a prison of his own making. Roger keeps acting out at school, including drawing his teacher on a blackboard in permanent ink, which lands him in the strange zone dubbed Detention Land, in which a woman’s voice behind the wall probes Roger about his misdeeds. This limbo reflects Roger’s own mind, and his feeling of being trapped in his life, and he must come to a better understanding of himself if he’s ever going to be free of Detention Land.
Roger is an intriguing character and protagonist. A little bit precocious to the point where he doesn’t always sound like he’s thirteen, and a fair bit full of himself, this reveals itself to be a facade, as he’s covering up some problems and insecurities – as is the case for us all. At the same time, Roger takes his malaise a step too far, as he misbehaves in fairly egregious ways. Not every thirteen-year-old is getting in this kind of trouble, or even fantasizing about it.
Roger’s inner voice is at once clever and very mean-spirited, which is a potential weakness for the book. In one moment he’s a wounded and sympathetic character, while in another he’s kind of a creep. As a professional Educational Psychologist, Orion certainly knows the psychology of young minds, but as a character, Roger is at times like Holden Caulfield without the pathos.
In a way, the book is the portrait of a bully – someone who acts out because of problems at home. Such is the case for Roger, but it is not necessarily the case for every child, so his mindset may be less recognizable. Certainly, all children act out in one way or another, but Roger’s antics are so extreme, as is his eventual predicament, that the book may most appeal to those kids who are most prone to Roger’s behavior. When he says something like “Lying is a part of my DNA” it’s tough to know what sort of example Orion is trying to set.
This is a book about exaggeration, which is something kids are prone to do, so Roger’s point of view is understandable to a certain degree. A 13-year-old getting detention may just feel like he’s being put in a horrific prison cell with walls that talk, so that in itself adds a layer of empathy to Roger’s situation, as well as a layer of mystery to what Detention Land actually is.
What makes the book an enjoyable read, and never too dark, is Orion’s lively prose. Here’s a taste:
Roger stared at the intercom. It was square and beige and looked like a 1970s computer. It had more knobs than a door store.
The prose gives this dark story some needed playfulness. As the voice of the narrator is from Roger’s own perspective, it gives his character some humor, when he can be cruel otherwise.
Overall, Roger’s narrative voice is so compelling that you keep reading on. The book is a bit uneven in the message it’s attempting to say about rebellion, as Roger lashes out more than he rebels, but there is much more to probe in Roger’s story, making a Book 2 in this series a tantalizing prospect.
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