REVIEW: The Wave (1981)

A Book by Todd Strasser

I think in most American teenagers lives they get to a point in U.S. History classes where they somewhat take the training wheels off of something resembling actual facts, and everyone learns how messed up The Holocaust really was. I was blessed to have a High School history teacher that did not pull punches, having us watch Schindler’s List and 1981’s The Wave as a classroom assignment. The Wave was interesting because any classroom discussion always turns into a thought exercise on what somebody would do placed in a similar situation, with most everyone brushing older generations as stupid to have fallen in line with such barbaric policies and acts. The Wave, which is based on true events, how easily a fascist mindset can actually take hold when a High School history teacher implements Hitler Youth indoctrination techniques into a classroom causing their very own dictatorship in the span of a single week.

The Wave is based on a true incident that occurred in a high school history class in Palo Alto, California, in 1969. The powerful forces of group pressure that pervaded many historic movements such as Nazism are recreated in the classroom when history teacher Burt Ross introduces a “new” system to his students. And before long The Wave, with its rules of “strength through discipline, community, and action”, sweeps from the classroom through the entire school. And as most of the students join the movement, Laurie Saunders and David Collins recognize the frightening momentum of The Wave and realize they must stop it before it’s too late. “

In the actual experiment, which happened in 1967, The teacher “taught his students about Nazi Germany during his senior level Contemporary World History class, [he] found it difficult to explain how the German people could have accepted the actions of the Nazis. He decided to create a fictional social movement as a demonstration of the appeal of fascism.” The book takes this and adapts it to the young adult market. Events are obviously dramatized and characters have a tendency to fall into your typical late 70s/early 80’s school archetypes that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Hughes movie. The writing is somewhat lacking in depth at points, and it’s pretty minimalist, but keep in mind the audience this is for.

There are some definite parts of the story that do a great deal to explain why certain people get into cults and other cult-like groups. Take a student named Robert, for example. The once class “loser” was given new purpose as a member of The Wave. For the first time literally ever, he felt like he belonged to something and it helped him improve himself it just about every way. He started wearing suits, combing his hair, and it awarded him friendships he had never been able to attain. When the experiment ended nothing was left, everyone was confronted with the fact that they had literally done everything Nazi Germany did during the Third Reich in such an accelerated state that it was mind-boggling. The book ends with Mr. Ross trying to help Robert pick up the pieces of his life after his new purpose was literally stripped from him. It’s a powerful message and goes to show how easily people get wrapped up in stuff like this. Hell, without getting political, I feel like the last five or so years have been a case-study in similar occurrences.

Overall, this is a powerful story. it’s only faults are that it is ostensibly a book adaptation of a teleplay and as such it hit all of the points of the film, and not much else. A little more depth would have been interesting, but as a book for young adults to understand how group-think works, it’s honestly one of the best out there. I’m glad I decided to re-visit my childhood and read this book, it still holds up today, perhaps even more than before.


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