The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Master Class
Master Class
by Christina Dalcher

Paperback (9 Mar 2021), 352 pages.
Publisher: Berkley Books
ISBN-13: 9780440000846
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

From the critically-acclaimed author of the international bestseller VOX comes a suspenseful new novel that examines a disturbing near future where harsh realities follow from unreachable standards.

It's impossible to know what you will do…

Every child's potential is regularly determined by a standardized measurement: their quotient (Q). Score high enough, and attend a top tier school with a golden future. Score too low, and it's off to a federal boarding school with limited prospects afterwards. The purpose? An improved society where education costs drop, teachers focus on the more promising students, and parents are happy.

When your child is taken from you.

Elena Fairchild is a teacher at one of the state's elite schools. When her nine-year-old daughter bombs a monthly test and her Q score drops to a disastrously low level, she is immediately forced to leave her top school for a federal institution hundreds of miles away. As a teacher, Elena thought she understood the tiered educational system, but as a mother whose child is now gone, Elena's perspective is changed forever. She just wants her daughter back.

And she will do the unthinkable to make it happen.

ONE

It's impossible to know what you would do to escape a shitty marriage and give your daughters a fair shot at success. Would you pay money? Trade the comfort of house and home? Lie, cheat, or steal? I've asked myself these questions; I suppose many mothers do. One question I haven't asked, mostly because I don't like the answer. Not a bit. I have too strong a survival instinct. Always have.

Last night, I spoke to Malcolm again after the girls had gone to bed. I tried to put a light spin on things, to not turn him from phlegmatic to angry with my words.

"I've had enough of this, Malc," I said. "Freddie's had enough of it."

He looked up from his paperwork long enough to meet my eyes. "Had enough of what?"

"Of the numbers. Of the pressure. Of all of it."

"Noted," he said and buried himself again in pages of reports and memos. I think I heard a relieved sigh when I left to go to bed.

Things haven't been good here for a long time.

I almost can't remember how it felt before we all started carrying the Q numbers around with us, like an extra and unnatural print on the tips of our fingers, a badge of honor for some, a mark of shame for others. I suppose, after more than a decade, you can get used to anything. Like cell phones. Remember not having the entire universe in your back pocket? Remember sitting on the floor, talking to your best friend about nothing, unwinding a curly cord only to watch it kink up again? Remember all that? I do and I don't. Blockbuster two-day video rentals and bookstores the size of an airplane hangar are distant memories, faded impressions of life before streaming and same-day delivery.

It's the same way with the Q numbers, although we've carried numeric strings with us in one form or another for most of our lives: our social security numbers for tax returns; our home telephone numbers in case an emergency call to Mom became necessary; our grade point averages that would fill boxes in dozens of college application forms. Men, in a clothing store, became thirty-four long or sixteen-and-a-half, thirty-three. Women became dress sizes: six, eight, fourteen. In the more upscale shops, we were our measurements. In doctors' offices, we were our height and weight, watching one number creep down while the other number crept up.

We've always been our numbers. DOB. GPA. SSN. BP (systolic and diastolic). BMI. SAT and GRE and GMAT and LSAT; 35-22-35 (Marilyn, damn her); 3 (the Babe). PINs and CSCs and expiration dates. Jenny's phone number from that old song. And, for the extreme among us, the entire sixteen-digit sequence on our Visa cards. Our ages. Our net worths. Our IQs.

I think about this in the grocery store, while I stand in one of the priority lines with close to a hundred bags and cans and boxes in my cart, enough to get my family of four through a few days. Yesterday, at Safeway, five other women glared at me from three lines over. One of them, I remembered from high school. I think she was a cheerleader. Pretty, thin, not too bright. What the hell was her name? Paulette? Paulina? Patty? Patty. That's it. She was fifth in line at the only open nonpriority checkout, holding a carton of skim milk. Patty's one item compared to my one hundred. I nearly let her cut in before me, but the cashier shrugged and shook his head in a hopeless no.

"Her card won't work in this line," the kid said. "You know."

He scanned my card, my magic card with its magic number encoded on it. Nine-point-something. It's the first digit that matters.

Patty didn't say a word. She would have, once. She, or one of the other women, would have rolled her cart over and refused to move. I saw a fistfight break out at a gas station once between a short man in a suit and that guy who worked at the hardware store down on Main. No competition there. The suit checked over Mr. Ex-High School Football once, got back into his Lexus, and drove off. When his card wouldn't work, Mr. Ex-Football punched the gas pump display until his fists were bloody and the police showed up. I don't know what his Q number was, but it sure as shit had to be below nine.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Master Class by Christina Dalcher. Copyright © 2020 by Christina Dalcher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The author discusses the use of numbers to judge ourselves and others. Can you think of any other numerical standards that we use today for evaluation? Do you think they are effective or do more harm?
  2. The schools and buses are all labeled as colors. Why do you think the author chose to use colors? Do you think they symbolize anything or have any meaning?
  3. Children in a household can grow up to be very different people, as evidenced by the household in Master Class. Yet the expression "blood is thicker than water" is prevalent and true in many cases. Did you feel that way when you read about each child in this household and how they evolved throughout the book?
  4. There are obvious stereotypes in the book, from the geeks in school being ostracized to the jocks being the most popular kids in school. Can you relate to the stereotypes? Could you imagine a world where Qs would be useful?
  5. The love between a child and a mother is an unbreakable bond. Could you have done what Elena did and sacrifice everything to be with your child?
  6. Government intervention is a major theme in the book. Do you agree the government should play a role in education? To what extent?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Berkley Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

After her breakout 2018 debut, Vox, Christina Dalcher follows up with the unsettling Master Class, a dystopian thriller set in the near future.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Christina Dalcher's Master Class shows America sleepwalking into a perfectionist eventuality not dissimilar to the one in Aldous Huxley's dystopian classic Brave New World. In Dalcher's novel, the state utilizes closely monitored "Q rankings" to determine children's futures. These rankings also dictate continuing levels of prosperity and social status for adults. The story describes a society in which academic pre-eminence is celebrated, while "feeblemindedness" and notions of individuality and diversity—whether educational, ethnic or sexual—are scorned.

Elena Fairchild, a teacher at a prestige school for advantaged children, is experiencing a crisis of conscience. Trapped in a marriage with a man she no longer loves, she is conflicted regarding the needs of her daughters, Freddie and Anne. Freddie is failing to achieve the prescribed educational standards, while Anne is exceeding them to the detriment of her childhood. Elena's husband Malcolm, who is deputy secretary in the Department of Education, is an unflinching advocate for society's oppressive dogma. Malcolm's dismissive and at times disgusted attitude toward Freddie causes Elena concern that is further compounded during interactions with her extended family, whose liberal values provide a stark contrast to those of her increasingly fundamentalist husband. In the meantime, despite the protection afforded by Malcolm's status, her family remains vulnerable to the dictates of the state. When Freddie, with Malcolm's blessing, is packed off to a school situated in a remote region of the country due to poor test results, Elena is presented with a difficult choice, one that will detonate her cozy existence and force her to reconsider her position and her family's future.

Master Class does a fine job of exploring the insidious nature of authoritarianism and showing how government officials are able to exercise unsettlingly high levels of control over citizens through a subtle manipulation of information, language and the media. The reader is introduced to a disturbing array of institutions, with names like the Fitter Family Campaign and the Genics Institute, whose job is to enforce oppressive policies, while characters such as Madeleine Sinclair, the federal secretary of education, provide a sheen of government respectability via the media.

Set in a future world not dissimilar to now, Master Class is frightening in its plausibility. By focusing on the miseducation of children and discrimination based on intellect, race, sexuality and disability, Dalcher creates a microcosm for the society in her novel. It is through this prism that the reader gains a broader understanding of the state's end goal of establishing a patriarchal hegemony in which the highest earners, men, have the most rights and in which educational conditioning, birth control, social engineering and eugenics all have a part to play in remodeling the nation. This goal has historical precedent in the American eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century as well as the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1920s and '30s (see Beyond the Book).

Elena's journey toward self-realization, her experience of motherhood and the challenges she must overcome to safeguard her children form the axis around which the novel's socio-political preoccupations pivot. Alternating between Elena's first-person narrative and periodic reflections on past events, the story reveals its secrets slowly. Elena's voice is self-deprecating, humorous and cynical. It is also incredibly intimate, which is particularly apparent when she is reflecting frankly on her relationship with Freddie and the difficult decisions she is forced to make in order to ensure her daughter's well being: "I know the consequences of choosing Freddie over Anne...It's a horrible choice, one I would have imagined unthinkable, but it's not the worst one I've ever made. Not by a longshot." Dalcher generates an amazing amount of reader empathy for Elena's plight despite the mistakes she has made, including her complicity in the development of the Q rankings.

Master Class is an unmitigated success. The story of Elena's journey confidently functions as both an assured dystopian thriller and a meticulously constructed socio-political cautionary tale. Fans of The Handmaid's Tale, and of dystopian fiction generally, will find much to please them in this impressive story of self-determination under pressure to conform.

Reviewed by Mark Anthony Ayling

Booklist
Dalcher's novel reads like an expanded episode of Black Mirror; it is terrifying, haunting, and cautionary.

Kirkus Reviews
The book's examination of the way people will accept more and more small social changes until the system becomes something unrecognizable and horrific feels timely and urgent...top notch and keeps the reader guessing. An engaging parable of dangerous social change

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Dalcher combines the pace and tension of a standout thriller with thought-provoking projections of the possible end result of ranking children based on test scores. Admirers of The Handmaid’s Tale will be appropriately unsettled.

Author Blurb Michael D'Antonio, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The State Boys Rebellion
Christina Dalcher's Master Class conjures an America informed by tragic elements of its past and present where science and humanity are both abused in ways that are all-too familiar and plausible. Her heroic women and tough yet elegant prose suggest Margaret Atwood updated for this moment. Master Class will confirm your fears and affirm your hope

Print Article Publisher's View  

The League of German Girls

Members of the BDM, 1935 The socio-political climate of Christina Dalcher's Master Class mirrors, to an extent, that of Germany during its early years under the influence of the Nazi Party. Dalcher draws overt comparisons between the educational proclivities of the Nazis and those of the book's fictional state, which seeks to establish intellectual, political and social conformity through the manipulation of young people. Early in the novel, Elena's grandmother confesses that she was once a member of the League of German Girls, the female wing of the Hitler Youth. She recounts how during this period "School became very different…Girls who used to skip the rope and play other games together began to separate." Given the marked similarities between the stratification of children in Nazi Germany and that of the children in Master Class, this confession serves as a warning to both Elena and the reader of the government's sinister intentions.

Hitler believed that for the Nazi party to proliferate, it would need to harness the hearts and minds of German children. In 1926, the Hitler Youth was conceived by party member and organizer Kurt Gruber as a way of indoctrinating young people into party ideology; in 1930, the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM), or the League of German Girls, was established as the female division of the organization. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Bund Deutscher Mädel became the only legal organization for young girls in the country.

The league was initially divided into two sections based on age: The Young Girls' League (Jungmädelbund), which was for girls ages 10 to 14, and the main section of the BDM, which girls could join from the ages of 14 to 18. Starting in 1938, girls could additionally join the Belief and Beauty Society (Werk Glaube und Schönheit) from the ages of 17 to 21. This group was meant to serve as a bridge between the BDM and the National Socialist Women's League, the women's contingent of the Nazi Party. Essential criteria for joining the BDM included pure German lineage, robust physical health and dedication to party dogma. In 1939, following the enactment of the Law on the Hitler Youth, it became mandatory for all youth between the ages of 10 and 18 who met the requirements to join a division of the organization.

Girls in the BDM wore uniforms, sang folk songs that promoted a positive Nazi interpretation of history and participated in physical activities designed to strengthen them in preparation for childbearing. BDM members were expected to commit to the patriarchal philosophies espoused by Nazi leaders, which included the idea that German women would not work and would fulfill traditional roles as housewives and mothers. The organization functioned as a conditioning tool for this eventuality, focusing its efforts on molding girls into obedient and unquestioning maternal archetypes.

In addition to being used as part of the Nazi propaganda campaign to soften the party's image and for the purpose of keeping girls committed to party ideals, the BDM played a sinister role within the community. Members were expected to inform on their teachers, parents, neighbors and peers if they suspected them of activity that could be interpreted as contrary to Nazi teachings. Meanwhile, BDM leaders were instructed to identify girls considered to be of good racial stock for the state-sponsored Lebensborn initiative, a supervised breeding program set up to raise birth rates in Germany and to promote the racial ideology of Nazi eugenics. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 children may have been conceived in the program.

Following the declaration of war in 1939, members of the BDM were tasked with a variety of responsibilities to support the war effort. These included running camps for young evacuees, agricultural responsibilities and working in nursing roles. As the war neared its end, some BDM girls even went into combat against advancing Allied troops. However, Dr. Jutta Rüdiger, the organization's leader during the war years, never officially sanctioned this and publicly denied that girls were placed in combat roles.

Following the collapse of the Nazi regime and Germany's surrender to the Allies, the BDM was officially outlawed on October 10, 1945 by the Allied Control Council. On October 1, 1946, Baldur von Schirach, who had served as head of the Hitler Youth from 1933 to 1940, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity.

Members of the BDM in 1935. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04517A / Georg Pahl (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Mark Anthony Ayling

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