Hartinger says gay is OK

Russel Middlebrook is your typical high school student: He struggles to find his niche in high school hierarchy, gets in fights with his friends and even falls in love. So what makes Brent Hartinger's "Geography Club" stand apart from other young adult novels?

For starters, Russel is gay. Hartinger has written one of the most important novels about being gay to come out in the past few years. Hartinger has accomplished with "Geography Club" something essential to his audience - he has created a very likeable, human character who just so happens to check out his teammates in the boys' locker room.

The main events of the novel revolve around Russel's secret. He believes he is the only gay kid at Robert L. Goodkind High School and will do anything to cover it up, especially in front of popular jock Kevin Land. After all, as Russel points out, "One sure way to become the least popular guy [in high school] was to have people think you might be gay."

With this said, Russel limits his sexuality to internet chat rooms. This is where he meets "GayTeen," another guy his age who lives in Russel's town. They agree to meet up, and Russel is shocked to greet none other than Kevin Land. Slowly, Russel exposes his sexuality to his best friend Min, who admits that she is bisexual. They soon find that several other Goodkind High students are gay, and decide to form the "Geography Club."

Figuring that no one will guess that a club with a name as boring as the "Geography Club" could be a gay alliance club, the five students band together twice a week after school to open up to each other. It's through this club that Russel finds comfort in the fact that he's gay, and doesn't feel ashamed to talk openly about his sexuality. Also at these meetings, Kevin and Russel begin to develop a relationship.

Other events happen at the same time to complicate the plot. Russel's friend Gunnar tricks him into going on a double date with Gunnar's would-be girlfriend. Things get worse when Russel realizes Gunnar's girlfriend, Kimberly, is only dating Gunnar so her friend Trish can get closer to Russel. When Trish begins to pressure Russel into having sex, he once again struggles with hiding his sexuality.

As "Geography Club" progresses and Russel's high school saga becomes more complex, it becomes harder to put this book down. From the first page, Hartinger succeeds in making Russel not simply a flat character on the page of a book, but a friend to all of us. We want to see Russel make it through high school and wind up with Kevin, and each plo twist leaves you scrambling to turn the page and see what will happen next.

Hartinger has managed to create original, fresh dialogue that sounds as if it was written by an actual high schooler. He clearly reached back to his teenage self to produce the novel, which makes it more notable. Not only does Russel think and speak like a teenager, but he also has a soul, which can be very hard to convey in young adult novels.

The more Russel realizes that acceptance can lead to comfort and happiness, he becomes more compassionate towards others in similar situations around him. He finds that his relationship with Kevin begins to disintegrate when Russel pushes to let outcast Brian Bund into the club. What ensues after this teaches Russel that it's better to be true to yourself rather than try to cover up who you are. This may be an unoriginal epiphany, but Hartinger's ability to bring warmth and life to his characters makes this mundane lesson believable.

By the end of "Geography Club," Russel has gone from being a closeted homosexual to a confident teenager who is unafraid to admit the truth. "Geography Club" is a bold, courageous attempt to bring more understanding to gay teenagers.

By creating Russel Middlebrook, Hartinger has proved that gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers are no different from their heterosexual peers. Everyone who reads this novel can see a part of themselves in Russel, which may scare some homophobic readers. This fright, however, may just open someone up who was previously closed on the topic, and may encourage more closeted teenagers to embrace who they are.

Hartinger will be signing books at Lambda Rising Bookstore, 1625 Connecticut Ave., on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. For more information, call (202) 462-6969.

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