Strangeville School is Totally Normal by Darcy Miller: A Review

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“And so, Strangeville, this is Vice Principal Capozzi, signing off. Remember, be kind. Be safe. Be curious. But most of all…be afraid.”
— Darcy Miller

Darcy Miller is a helluva writer. Her debut novel, Roll, is one of the finest examples of how pre-adolescent boys actually think. Doesn’t sound like much of a feat, I get it. There are tons of books about boys, many of them excellent. But very few are true to the inner workings of boyhood. Miller’s is. And that’s something to cherish. 

Now comes Strangeville School is Totally Normal, a wild, wacky novel filled with surrealist humor. If you’ve ever wandered the halls of Wayside School or slipped down the rabbit hole with Alice, you’ll feel right at home at Strangeville School. 

Strangeville walks a very narrow tightrope. Surrealist comedy requires pitch-perfect execution or it muddles into an unfunny mess. As on the stage, comedy on the page needs exact timing. You can always tell a comic who doesn’t quite have it, and the same is true when you’re reading a book that’s supposed to be funny but just, well…isn’t.

Strangeville is damn funny. 

From Cuddles the giant (and ever-growing) rat to Janitor Gary who introduces one dangerous creature after another into the school (alligators, snakes, cougars, oh my) to the most insane game of dodgeball ever invented, Miller nails it again and again. And did I mention Nurse Porter, whose method of slowing the spread of disease is to remove the limbs of students? 

Strangeville abounds with the wacky and the absurd, like this:

“Chef Louis had found the black hole the day before, behind the deep fryer.”

That’s enough to ruin your day, but Chef Louis is not defeated. Like any good chef, he consults his recipe book, patiently determining the best course of action. Cassoulet? Takes too long to prepare. Sponge cake? Too delicate. Chili? No, kidney beans and black holes do not mix.

But meatloaf! 

“Ground beef. Egg. Onion. Bread crumbs. Mustard. Brown sugar. Milk. A teaspoon of black hole. Salt and pepper to taste.”

Boom! Problem solved. At least sort of. Eating the meatloaf is another matter altogether, as our hero, Harvey Hill, eventually discovers. 

A first pass of Strangeville might leave you concluding it’s little more than an effective mishmash of running gags and crazy characters. But there’s more going on here. Miller leverages surrealism to craft a tale that is emotionally true to how kids feel in a new school

Ever switched schools? Gone to summer camp? Prayed in a different church? Remember how surreal that felt? You didn’t know the rules, what was acceptable and what wasn’t. In one school, you can just walk out when you need to use the restroom. In another, not asking for the hall pass earns you a ticket to detention. You just don’t know. 

For Harvey, this plays out over and over again. His teachers behave in ways that are utterly bizarre to him. The geography of Strangeville is a mystery. The customs of the school are indecipherable. And what he believes are in-jokes fly right over his head, making him feel entirely alone. 

Add to this that Harvey is carrying his own secret, one that he is certain will – if revealed – make him a pariah among his classmates. 

Which is how every kid feels: if they really knew me, they’d hate me.

The genius of Strangeville isn’t in the jokes but rather in the way Miller sends Harvey wandering down the halls of a Rablesian middle school that perfectly amplifies his inner turmoil. As with Roll, Miller’s gift is in understanding how kids (specifically boys) think and behave. 

Full disclosure: I picked Roll off the shelves at my local library cold. Didn’t know a thing about it. I snagged it purely because Miller and I share the same last name (hey, what’s this other Miller up to?). The cover reminded me vaguely of Homer Winslow, and I thought: what the heck? 

I’m glad I did. Cause two books later, I’m certain Darcy Miller is a writer to watch, and her craft is one to admire. 

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