Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman
by Ben H. Winters
Recommended Ages: 12+

Mr. Melville is the kind of sixth-grade history teacher who says things like, "Ah! Mr. Lashey! You've decided to favor us with your company! What a pleasant surprise!" and who announces a "floating midterm" exam that could come at any time, on a day's notice, and accounts for one-third of your grade. On the plus side, he has a whimsical streak that leads him, for example, to assign special presentations about whatever interests each student. Bethesda Fielding takes his latest Special Project – to get to the bottom of some mystery – and runs with it, uncovering the secret identity of Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School's mousy music teacher, Ms. Finkleman. Bethesda's announcement that the shy, soft-spoken teacher used to headline an all-girl punk rock band astounds everyone, and leads the school's eccentric principal to order Ms. Finkleman to forget about entering a program of traditional English folk ballads in a music competition called the Choral Corral, and instead to prepare a rock concert.

To make the rock concert come off, and to pay Bethesda back for outing her, Ms. Finkleman strikes a deal: Bethesda will tutor an easily distracted, rock music obsessed classmate named Tenny to make it through Melville's floating midterm, and Tenny will actually put together the rock concert. The sixth-grade music class forms three bands, each learning a song from a different decade and the whole group working up an encore number for the Choral Corral. They start out sounding awful, but with Tenny coaching them in a way that makes it seem like Ms. Finkleman is doing so, they gradually pull together as a band (I mean, three bands) and are about ready to rock the town when Melville announces the surprise exam on the eve of the contest. This last-minute crisis goads Bethesda and Tenny into desperate undertakings, with the pride of Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School on the line.

This is a heartwarming and hilarious tale about middle school friendship, the love of music, the pressure of performing, and making peace with people who have hurt you or been hurt by you. It is full of zany characters, including a classically trained boy pianist who "needs to rock," a pathologically competitive principal who makes embarrassing bets with the head of a competing school, a goofy assistant principal and an overachiever whose cold, unnurturing father stands in the doorway saying "there, there" at her without moving a step closer, and who proceeds to coach her on how to blackmail a teacher into letting her will be done. Bethesda and Tenny don't come out squeaky clean, considering the choices they make, but their music class catches an enthusiasm for rock music that's really infectious.

Ben H. Winters is the author of the parody/pastiche novels Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, the Last Policeman trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City and World of Trouble), the speculative fiction novels Bedbugs, Underground Airlines and Golden State, and this book's sequel, The Mystery of the Missing Everything.

No comments: