Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

Neither extremely popular nor an outcast, Gail Osburne is a typical American high school student. Gail's father commutes to New York City, where he works as an architect. Gail later learns that he has lost his job because of an economic recession but, unable to break the bad news to his family, has continued commuting to the city as if still employed. Although Gail's mother is a loving and concerned parent, she also proves unable to communicate her feelings with her daughter.

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Peck provides skillful thumbnail sketches of the secondary characters who populate Gail's school and community. Gail's best friend, Alison, dates and hopes to marry Phil Lawver, a member of the wealthiest and most respected family in town. Steve, Gail's intellectual boyfriend, no longer fits in with his working-class family or childhood friends. Sonia Slanek, the most complete outsider in the school's social system, bewilders and fascinates the other students with her artistic flair. Miss Venable is too young and inexperienced a guidance counselor to help Gail with her problem, but the drama teacher, Madame Malevich, provides more understanding. She helps Gail to cope with her crisis but cannot change the social system that ostracizes rape victims and regards them with suspicion. Peck refuses to treat rapist Phil Lawver with any sympathy whatsoever. He remains a flat, villainous character seen only through Gail's eyes. Nevertheless, Phil fits in quite comfortably with the typical inhabitants of the community, rendering him all the more frightening.

Clearly, the novel's theme centers on the effects of rape on a teen-age girl. After demonstrating how easily a rape can occur, Peck reveals the victim's error in retreating from friends, family, and the authorities, and the positive effects of calling out for help. The author focuses his rage not on the characters in his story but on the laws and societal norms that view the rape victim as guilty of the crime. Mr. Naylor, a lawyer, presents this theme most clearly as he warns Gail of the problems she will encounter in seeking justice. Gail asks, "Why does the law protect the rapist instead of the victim?" and Naylor replies, "Because the law is wrong."

The novel also stresses the positive effects of communication. Mr. Osburne's denial of his unemployment mirrors Gail's solitary struggles with her emotional crisis. If Gail and her father could communicate more effectively with other family members and friends, their burdens would be more bearable.

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