Onyx reviews: Boy in the Water
by Stephen Dobyns
In his previous novel, Church of Dead Girls, Stephen Dobyns explored
how the peaceful, harmony of a small town could be destroyed by gossip, rumor
and innuendo. Boy in the Water reduces the playing field even further.
The setting is Bishop's Hill, an end-of-the-line prep school. The faculty
consists of teachers at the bottom of their respective career slumps and the
students all have problems that have kept them out of better institutions.
Bishop's Hill is nearing the bottom of a long slide. Its days are numbered
unless someone can turn the school around.
Jim Hawthorne has been hired as the new headmaster. He is a renowned clinical
psychologist whose learned papers are used to teach classes in finer institutes
of learning. Against the advice of his friends and colleagues, he has made the
cross-country trek from his former position in California to this new challenge
in New Hampshire. Few can understand why he would throw away his promising
career to lead this sinking ship of a school.
Hawthorne, too, has a past from which he is trying to escape and he throws
himself headlong into the chore. He soon creates more adversaries than friends
among the staff as he winnows away their long-established privileges, languor
and their casual approach to the students. For Hawthorne, the students come
first, a new concept for Bishop's Hill.
The prologue sets the stage for an ominous outcome to Hawthorne's first
semester. A boy is shown floating in the locked school pool, a kitten perched
helplessly on the boy's corpse. The viewpoint then pulls back like a camera on a
massive boom to take in the setting, and to mark the locations and activities of
key—but as yet unintroduced—players in the story. The novel then begins
several months earlier, as Hawthorne first arrives on campus.
"Bishop's Hill is a place where things went wrong," one character
comments. The new cook's assistant, a Cajun who tells a stream of off-color
jokes, is a murderer. Someone appears to be trying to drive Hawthorne crazy by
conjuring up ghosts from his past. Rumors and conjecture breed among the faculty
and staff about the new headmaster's 'real' plans for the school. Hawthorne is
unable to squelch the stories that he intends to fire certain faculty members or
that he is merely there to write a book about the school. These rumors are more
than idle talk: someone is deliberately fanning the flames to keep the stories
There are other stories which remain carefully guarded secrets, much to
Hawthorne's frustration. "Bishop's Hill was full of subjects that people
preferred not to discuss," including the death of a student several years
earlier and the sudden departure of the previous headmaster, in the middle of
While the novel is not a "whodunit" for very long as far as the
killings are concerned, the murderer's co-conspirators remain veiled in secrecy
and their motivation is only revealed in layers. In much the same way, the
horrible tragedy which caused Hawthorne to seek out a new life is peeled away
and shown to the reader a bit at a time.
The conflict builds up to an exciting climax as the killer begins to unravel
and the school is isolated from the rest of the world by a major December snow
storm, cutting off telephone lines, electricity and roads. Hawthorne must try to
solicit the help of the few faculty members who remain to defeat the murderer
and save the lives of the children.
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