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Todd Strasser's The Wave is a novelization of a teleplay by Johnny Dawkins based on a short story by Ron Jones. The book recounts a true incident that took place in a California high school in 1969. The central character, a history teacher with the fictionalized name Ben Ross, undertakes an experimental class project in an attempt to help his students understand how the German people could have allowed the Holocaust to occur. The students had posed the question and expressed a strong interest in exploring the issue after viewing a documentary on Nazi atrocities against the Jews.

Demanding strict, militaristic obedience to his commands in the classroom, and using chants and slogans to stimulate morale, Ross creates an environment where power comes from the experience of unity, and conformity to group pressure takes precedence over independent thinking. To his surprise, the students are completely captivated by the experiment, which is christened "The Wave"; they seem to actually revel in the rigid discipline and regimental drills which are central to the undertaking. Interestingly, the individuals who become the most fanatically devoted to the system are those who had been outcasts in the normal school social structure; as part of The Wave, these students discover a sense of acceptance and power they have never before been able to achieve. The Wave, which had begun as a simple class project, soon spreads throughout the school. There is a sinister aspect to it that develops as it grows, however. Many students conform mindlessly to the system, while others are pressured ruthlessly to join in. Fear and near-coercion becomes an integral part of the proceedings, as The Wave takes on the characteristics of a cult.

Fast-moving and simply written, The Wave explores a phenomenon of vital significance in world and social history, the insipid power of group dynamics which, when used wrongly, can seduce people to act in ways totally in opposition to their professed standards of morality. The book is especially valuable in the canon of young adult literature because it stimulates deep thinking and discussion on a subject of critical relevance, yet it is written in a manner that renders it inviting and accessible to even the most reluctant reader.


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Ben Ross, in his second year of teaching history at Gordon High School, is surprised when his normally apathetic students react passionately after viewing a grisly documentary on the Holocaust in his class. The students are particularly troubled by the lack of action on the part of the majority of the German population who were not members of the Nazi party; they cannot understand why these citizens did not try to stop the atrocities committed by Hitler, and how they could have claimed that they had not known what was going on. Intrigued by the students' questions, Mr. Ross decides to try an experiment with his class to give them "a taste of what life in Nazi Germany might have been like."

In his original estimation, Mr. Ross's project would take only one or possibly two class periods at most. He opens the session the next day with a discussion about discipline and how it relates to power and success. Mr. Ross then runs his students through some exercises emphasizing posture and coordination of movement, timing them as they practice racing to their desks as a unit from different starting points. The students are inexplicably hooked by the activity, quickly learning to work as a whole, and even taking the initiative to devise ways of increasing their efficiency in completing the task. Mr. Ross then ups the ante, requiring students to stand rigidly by their seats when speaking,...

(This entire section contains 1270 words.)

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and to always begin communication by addressing him by name. Adopting these disciplines into his teaching approach, he proceeds with his lesson by drilling the students in a snappy, lockstep question and answer format. Amazingly, the usually lackadaisical students are spellbound by the process. Describing the feeling they get from being part of the experiment "like a rush," they return to class the next day hungry for more of the same. Astonished by his students' enthusiasm, Mr. Ross decides to develop the experiment further, beginning a discussion on community, and the heady feeling engendered when a person is "part of something that's more important than himself." He gives the new community a name—"The Wave"—and designs a symbol and a salute to be used by members only.

The next day in class, Mr. Ross adds a new twist to The Wave. He tells the students that they must eliminate their attitude of competition and begin to conceive of themselves as a team. He emphasizes that in The Wave, everyone is equal, and instructs students to go out and recruit new members, who will have to "demonstrate knowledge of (the) rules and pledge strict obedience to them." Mr. Ross passes out cards identifying some individuals as law enforcers, and the new directives arouse the students to a higher level of devotion. The movement begins to take on a cult-like life of its own.

Laurie Saunders, an exceptionally bright and popular student, is one of the first to recognize the dangerous direction in which The Wave is evolving. As an editor on the school newspaper, her concerns are exacerbated when she receives an anonymous letter from a junior, describing how he and his friends had been bullied into joining the movement by some seniors. Later, she witnesses a fight on the quadrangle between two football players. One of them, the quarterback, Brian Ammon, is an avid supporter of The Wave, while the other, an upstart named Deutsch, is not. David Collins, Laurie's boyfriend and the senior who introduced The Wave to the football team, believes that Deutsch, who is after Brian's position as quarterback, is only out for himself, in direct defiance of the principles of The Wave. In an ensuing argument, David accuses Laurie of not supporting The Wave because, in an environment where everyone is equal, she is no longer special, either academically or socially. Their two-year relationship comes to an end because of The Wave.

After hearing that a student has been beaten up by "a couple of hoods" following a Wave rally, Laurie gathers the newspaper staff to write up an edition exposing The Wave as "a dangerous and mindless movement" which needs to be stopped. Only part of the staff shows up; the others are fearful of "incur(ring) the wrath of The Wave." When the newspaper is published, members of the movement, including some of Laurie's best friends, react angrily. Robert Billings, a former outcast who is one of The Wave's most fanatic members, says ominously that "Laurie Saunders is a threat...she must be stopped."

That evening, Laurie is the last to leave the newspaper office. Stopping at her locker, she discovers that someone has scrawled the word "enemy" on it in red letters, and she hurries home in the dark, terrified. David, who has been waiting in a parked van with Brian, accosts Laurie as she walks quickly by. Under pressure from Brian and Robert to make her understand that they are "not playing around anymore," David tries to persuade Laurie to stop the paper's negative campaign. When Laurie will not listen, David is infuriated and, grabbing her, throws her roughly to the ground. Stunned by his own behavior, David realizes that "anything that could make him do what he'd just done (is) wrong," and as he holds Laurie tightly, he feels as if he has just emerged from a trance.

In the meantime, rumors about The Wave are circulating unchecked, and the administration at Gordon High is being inundated with calls from frantic parents. Astonished at how far out of control his well-intentioned project has gotten, Mr. Ross knows he must stop it, and, after much agonizing, comes up with a plan to do so. David and Laurie come to his house for help, and confirm what he already knows about the atmosphere of fear and danger created by The Wave. Mr. Ross promises that he will do something tomorrow that will bring the students to an understanding of what Laurie and David have already discovered for themselves, and he asks them for their trust.

The next day, knowing his job and more is on the line, Mr. Ross sets his plan in motion. He calls a rally for Wave members only, announcing that the movement at Gordon High is one of many across the country, and that at the rally, the students will hear from "the national leader of The Wave...(about) the formation of a National Wave Youth Movement." When the students are gathered in the auditorium, there is a long wait; one frustrated young man calls out that there is no leader, and is roughly escorted outside by Wave guards. Immediately thereafter, Mr. Ross strides dramatically to the stage and shouts, "Yes, you have a leader!" On a large movie screen, a "gigantic image" of Adolph Hitler appears, followed by a montage of "the faces of the young Nazis who fought for him"; faces fresh, youthful, and blindly devoted, like those mirrored in the audience. Mr. Ross then drives home the point of experience, which is how easily the students have fallen into the attitude of fascism, and apologizes for his role in an experiment that has succeeded far too well. The students are stunned and ashamed as the object of the lesson is revealed and their own complicity in the outcome becomes clear. The most devastated of all is Robert Billings, the former outcast who has blossomed under the militaristic regime of The Wave.