Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Stepford School: The Mysterious Case of the Allbright Academy by Diane Stanley

Franny can't believe it. On the recommendation of former Secretary of State Martha Evergood, her beautiful and charming little sister Zoe has been accepted to an elite prep school, and although Franny and Zoe's twin J.D. are no great shakes as child prodigies, they have been admitted just to keep eleven-year-old Zoe company. The whole family is blown away, not only by the beauty of the posh campus, but by the amazing poise and good looks of the students.

I studied the few Allbright students who were out and about that early in the morning, and saw that [our guide] Allison was right. They were fit, every single one of them--fit and absolutely gorgeous. Not a single one was overweight, or suffering from acne, or cursed with bad hair. They had perfect postures.

It was like being at cheerleader camp.

And the perfection seems to be contagious. Franny meets three other rising eighth graders when she takes the qualifying exams. Cal is overweight, has unstylish frizzy hair, and seems depressed over the separation from her diplomat father, who is about to be posted overseas and eager to stash her in a safe location. Brooklyn is a quirky poet in dreadlocks, and Prescott is a snobby academic superstar who seems to feel he's slumming with the likes of Franny, Cal, and Brooklyn. Strangely, though, after a little time as Allbright students, all four of them find themselves inexplicably moving toward the school norm. Cal slims down, gets a great hairdo, and becomes quite cheery. Brooklyn becomes "Brook" and loses the dreads, and even Prescott becomes marginally personable and altruistic. Franny, too, realizes that she's become an eager student, with awesome powers of concentration and a sunny can-do attitude. No longer homesick for her best friend Beamer and parents back home, Franny even feels restless and impatient with her old life when she visits at Thanksgiving. It is a bit odd, she thinks, that she's become so much like the other Allbright academic superstars, but, hey, what's not to like about such an exciting environment?

Then Cal has to be hospitalized off campus for several weeks with a ruptured appendix, and when she returns to Allbright, she seems more like her old self, depressed, missing her father, and reluctant to take up her old life at school as she recovers. Finally she quietly admits the reason to Franny: she is certain that the students at Allbright are being given some kind of drug to produce their perfect personalities and that the vector for this drug must be the school's trademark brownies. Dubious but willing to experiment, Franny, Brooklyn, and Prescott secretly go off the brownies too, stealthily because they realize that the staff is constantly pressing them upon the students. After a few days the changes are subtle but telling. Feelings--normal teenage emotions--return, and the four realize that there must be something a bit sinister behind this strange form of mind control.

The four work out a plan of investigation. Brooklyn feigns a detention working in the school kitchen to get a sample of the brownie mix, and when Prescott's friend in his mom's chemistry department finds three mind-altering drugs in it, he is able to substitute regular brownie mix for the drug-containing packages. Soon all the students begin to act more like normal kids--messy, lazy, loud, and prone to argue with their teachers, even daring to cut class.

Looking for proof of some sort of conspiracy, the others distract Headmistress Bodempfedder's secretary long enough for Franny to sneak into her office and look for information. Franny is just reading through the very complete files on former graduates when she hears the click of Dr. Bodempfedder's stiletto heels outside the office. Quickly hiding in the closet, she overhears a very telling phone conversation between Bodempfedder and Allbright founder Horace Gallow. Apparently, the headmistress has discovered that the brownies are no longer working and asks him to meet to come up with a strategy for retaining control of the student body. Thinking fast, Franny text messages Cal and asks her to set up to record the live conversation via Fran's cell phone.

The conversation goes even further than Franny hoped. Gallow's and Bodempfedder's conversation go deep into their plan to program their students and control their graduates to take over government and private industry in the United States. With this evidence in hand, the kids realize that it's up to them to stop the conspiracy. Franny meets with her old friend Beamer, and he volunteers to amplify the purloined conversation and put it in a Power Point presentation along with digital photos of the documents Franny and Prescott copy from Bodempfedder's computer.

The target of this preparation has to be the annual meeting of the board of directors of Allbright Academy, and with a little help from Reuben on the kitchen staff and Ms. Lollyheart, the headmistress's secretary, both of whom are outside the conspiracy, they set up quite a surprise for the visitors at the annual meeting. When the board sits down for a routine student slide presentation of the year at Allbright, they learn that the administration is using their students in a plot to take over the nation.

Diane Stanley's The Mysterious Case of the Allbright Academy is a page-turning mystery with full-fledged teen characters who put their accelerated educational opportunities to good use as they turn the tables on the school that programmed their psychological profiles to make them agents to perfect national policy. Stanley's novel is a fun read which nevertheless has something to say about the downside of the pursuit of perfection as the panacea for society, quietly making the point that real people with real emotions and normal, messy lives, warts and all, have a lot to offer.

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