Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823
Chelsea Olinger, the narrator of the story, is fifteen when she begins school at Crestwood High. Like many adolescent girls, Chelsea has an ambivalent relationship with her mother as she tries to find her own identity and assume more responsibility for her own actions. Her plan of remaining anonymous and slipping quietly through school life changes when she is befriended by Ashley. As one of Ashley's chosen people, Chelsea metamorphoses as she picks up character traits from her new friends, a way of walking from one, a hand gesture from another, a new hair style from Ashley. She reaches the point where she thinks, "I'd almost forgotten who I'd been."
Chelsea meets Pod Johnson in the registration line on the first day of school. By his manner, his speech, and his dress, Pod gives the impression of being a cowboy, but that affectation is merely his way of being different from the rest of the crowd. Pod is a throwback to common sense in a world of clones and peer pressure. As the school days pass, he and Chelsea evolve into a couple. Pod sees through Ashley and her group, and on occasion warns Chelsea about her friend. Although Chelsea believes what Pod says about Ashley, she does not want to admit it to anyone and only secretly wonders at some of Ashley's motives.
Wealthy Ashley Packard is in charge. When she walks by a mirror, she does not glance in it. When she walks into a classroom, she becomes the controlling agent. Instead of sitting in a row with the other students, she pulls her desk out of line and angles it toward them. A smart manipulator, Ashley does not do well academically because she is above having to study. Her bad grades are another way of proving that she is the one who decides what is important and what is not. She controls her father and is so self-involved that she denies the existence of her step-mother, calling Celia her father's friend.
Craig Kettering is the male counterpart to Ashley, although he is even more of a controller. He acts as if he owns all he sees and as if there is a spotlight following his every move. In junior high, Craig ran the school. As a lowly sophomore in high school, he sets out to leave his mark and gain the power he is used to holding. As a junior he infiltrates the secret senior club, the C-Stars, and in the process develops a drinking problem. He never makes it to his senior year.
Miss Larrimore, alias Mrs. Olinger at home, is one of the counselors at school. Chelsea does not want anyone to know that Miss Larrimore is her mother, and not until the middle of the book is their relationship dramatically revealed. It is because of Miss Larrimore's new job that the family has moved.
Chelsea's father trains hunting dogs, an occupation he can practice in any location. Chelsea resents the fact that her mother's job is more important than her father's, and through most of the book, she resents anything pertaining to her mother. In Chelsea's eyes there is a competition between her mother and herself, and she always comes out second best. Her mother has a better figure, tans better, is smarter and more clever. This secondary theme of the difficult parent-child relationship is intertwined throughout the primary theme of peer pressure. Chelsea's friends' parents, although playing minor roles in the narrative, are characterized in their relationships with their children: Ashley controls her father and step-mother; Craig's parents do not want to know too much about his situation, they are more concerned with keeping his problems private; and Pod's parents, throwbacks to the sixties and the hippie movement, want him to be happy. By the end of the novel, Chelsea realizes the importance of her mother's job as a counselor because her friends are drifting and need direction they are not getting from home. Chelsea has matured and wants to build a better mother-daughter relationship.
Chelsea also matures in her ability to defy peer pressure. A favorite theme of Richard Peck's, peer pressure is an important issue that faces youth and influences their teenage choices, which can have lifelong repercussions. Chelsea's strength to resist peer pressure grows slowly, but by the end of the book she is able to deny Ashley's request for help with the secretive junior party. However, Chelsea does not tell her parents that the party will be held on their property. This withheld information is a silent way of lying that Chelsea must live with as she tries too late to stop the tragic flow of events that lead to Craig's accident. As she prepares for her final year in high school, Chelsea has made great strides toward individualism and independence, as illustrated by her last meeting with Ashley. As she walks away, Chelsea does not turn to watch for Ashley's wave.
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