Literary Criticism and Significance
Published in 1981, Todd Strasser's The Wave recounts a true incident that took place in a history class at a Palo Alto, California, high school in 1969. The teacher of the class, Ron Jones, who is fictionally renamed Ben Ross in the book, actually formulated the experiment described in the narrative in an effort to help his students understand how the Holocaust could have happened without the mass condemnation of the German people. What begins as a simple class project quickly takes on a life of its own however, as students conform mindlessly to the experimental system, and others are pressured ruthlessly to join in. Group dynamics and peer influence bordering on coercion create a sinister atmosphere of fear and mistrust, as The Wave spontaneously takes on the characteristics of a cult. The event disrupts an entire school and raises a plethora of dark questions concerning responsibility, freedom, and group dynamics. Ron Jones calls it "one of the most frightening events (he has) ever experienced in the classroom."
As a novelization of a teleplay by Johnny Dawkins, based on a short story by Ron Jones, Strasser's book might not have attracted an abundance of criticism as a literary entity in itself, but The Wave clearly holds an important place in the canon of young adult literature. Its exploration of the insipid power of group dynamics and its potential, when used wrongly, to lead individuals to act almost unwittingly in total opposition to their professed standards of morality provides material strongly conducive to multilevel thinking and discussion. The subject matter can be used across the curriculum, and is especially pertinent in the areas of social studies, history, and literature. The Wave is valuable in that it examines a dystopian situation in a contemporary setting intimately familiar to student experience. The fast-moving narrative is written in a simple, straightforward style, making it accessible to students of a wide variety of interests and abilities.
The Wave was made into an hour-long television presentation by TAT Communications Company in 1981.