The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson
originally published 1983
Henry Holt & Co, 1st printing, 1997
Genre: Young adult, horror, black comedy
Synopsis & Review: The five members of Group 6 have little in common but an unfortunate parentage, something of which none of them are aware. Though they believe they’re intended to start a new schoolyear at a new boarding school called Coldbrook Country School, none of the members of Group 6 have any idea what’s in store for them. Coldbrook isn’t just a private school, it’s also a disposal facility, so to speak. For a fee, parents of difficult children—“lemons” in Coldbrook parlance—can have their difficult offspring removed from the face of the planet. They will be murdered and then the bodies disposed of in deep crevasses in the earth, where they’ll be no bother to anyone ever again.
But Group 6 is different. Coke and Sully, and Marigold, Sara, and Ludi—and their leader/TA, Nat– will be the last Group that Coldbrook tries to dispose of. Instead of Nat killing the Group, and then in turn being killed by Coldbrook’s inner circle of staff, Nat will confess to the Group Coldbrook’s and their parents’ intentions. Rather than wait quietly for death, the Group digs in to the remote wilderness beyond the school, camping for the autumn as Coldbrook’s staff frantically search for the missing lemons.
While in hiding, the Group slowly coheres, becoming friends, and in some cases lovers. They learn to work together, and to play to their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. By the time winter approaches, the Group formulates a plan to return to their rightful places, wherever those may be.
If I had been ten when I first read The Grounding of Group 6, or twelve, or even fourteen, then I would have eaten it up. It has all the elements of classic YA of its era: attractive young people (none are fat!) chock full o’ burgeoning sexuality, hateful and/or neglectful parents, a lack of adult supervision, roughing it in the wilderness, psychic powers, and very bizarre circumstances. I should still eat it up with a spoon, but unfortunately, it all falls apart at the end.
The whole point of Group 6 is that these kids—not bad kids, just misfits (in Skurnik’s words: sassy Marigold, who has lightning bolts on her panties; dry, lanky Coke, who has vodka bottles stashed in his rucksack; sweet Sully, who is hot but unsullied; sporty Sarah, who is shy but secure; and Ludi, who is, as required by quota laws governing 99 percent of teen novels, psychic. On top of that is the still-young Nat–who has been thrust into this position by a small gambling habit.)—finally become a part of something, part of a family. The varying degrees of fracture in their home lives before Coldbrook and grounding left them immature and incomplete; in Group 6, those missing parts of themselves are filled in by each other and by their own growth and change. But (and there’s always a but), Thompson falters by SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER having the Group retreat back into the wilderness after returning to Coldbrook as conquering heroes. Instead of remaking their world in their own image as they were set to do, Ludi and Nat flee responsibility for the woods, followed closely by Marigold and Coke. This weakens the entire novel, because the Group cannot maintain the strength they acquired by working together in the backwoods, so that strength was only ephemeral. What was the point of everything they endured if they can’t keep it alive inside of themselves wherever they may be? It just fizzles out into an adolescent pipedream of having their cake and eating it too.
The Grounding of Group 6 was the second selection I read for the Shelf Discovery Challenge, another book that I’d somehow missed entirely growing up (I don’t even remember seeing that cover or reading that title, ever.) It’s mordantly funny, has interesting and realistic characters (down to the annoying and self-conscious habits of pretension), and really captures that golden glow of late 70s/early 80s YA fiction. Most significantly, it’s an apt ending to the era of “a golden YA trope–the parent who deserves to die” (Skurnik 127). Parents became pals and co-conspirators instead of tyrants who must be conspired against. No wonder kids today have nervous breakdowns when they go off to college for the first time.
Read also: Killing Mr Griffin by Lois Duncan, After the First Death by Robert Cormier
Cover: Really ugly, a jumble of 90s images in muddy greens and browns. Way too literal.
“They always said they were teaching us how to take our place in society and be good citizens. That’s what jails are meant to do, right? But they’d never let us decide anything for ourselves–nothing important, anyway. We were ‘too young’ to do that, or we didn’t ‘know enough.’ They always had The Answer, and it was really the only one we were allowed to give.” She ate another bite out of her Whopper. “At hour school, The Answer to ‘What goes with hamburgers?’ was ‘ketchup.’ ‘Mustard’ was wrong, so you couldn’t have it. I’m not kidding.”
“Right,” said Nat, “and The Answer to ‘What kind of a world is it out there?’”
“‘Dog eat dog,’” said Ludi promptly.
“And, ‘When should a person go to college?’”
“‘Directly after high school, or you’ll never go’–everyone knows that,” said Ludi. “That’s as stupid as asking, ‘If you know how to do the homework, and it isn’t graded, must you hand it in anyway?’”
“Of course you must,” said Nat. “Otherwise you’ll flunk. ‘The homework is required.’ So. What’s a person called who doesn’t date?”
“‘A queer,’” said Ludi.
“Right,” said Nat. “‘Is more better?’”
“Always,” she said. “Except in the case of zits, cavities, and pants-tightness.”
28 December – 29 December