Watch Out For Jamie Joel
by Mike Dumbleton
Published by Allen and Unwin
139 pages, 2002
Buy it online
No Sir, With Love
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Jamie Joel is a student at a high school somewhere in Adelaide, Australia. Her mother ran off with a boyfriend, leaving her with an aunt who didn't want her who makes her life difficult. No angel herself, Jamie has been trying to get her life under control and keep out of trouble, but it isn't working. The new deputy principal, Craig Eliot, is doing his best to turn around some of the many students who look ready to drop out. He is caring and competent, trying to reverse the mess made by his predecessor, but nobody is going to make it easy for him: not the parents or the students themselves, nor even his staff. And his wife is not impressed by the way his job keeps intruding into their private lives.
The story alternates between Craig's viewpoint and Jamie's, with a different typeface for each, making it easy to follow. The stories of Jamie's friends are well-woven into her own. Craig has all of the students to look after, but the author never loses track of any of them.
Most stories set in schools are shown from the viewpoint either of the students or the staff, but rarely both. The only other one I have read recently is Chris Wheat's Grinders, a novel published a couple of years ago, which is about a bunch of final-year students and their teachers at a school very similar to the one in Watch Out For Jamie Joel, though more multicultural.
Grinders is more dense than Jamie Joel and requires a lot more concentration. In Grinders, there was a funeral on the first page, though you didn't find out who the dead person was till near the end. In this case, there's a funeral a few pages from the end. The character who died in Grinders was a "good" boy who should have had a lot to live for, the death in this one was of a character who wasn't especially nice, but for whom the reader could feel sympathy because his life was just so awful.
Mike Dumbleton, the author of Watch Out For Jamie Joel, is a teacher and it shows; he makes the daily problems of working in a school utterly believable. Many school stories are written by those who have not seen the inside of a school in years, or who have only worked in the private system where, perhaps, the subject of the characters' anguish is neglect by professional parents. The school in this novel is an ordinary state-run school in a poorer suburb, where the problem is more likely to be physical and verbal abuse by the mother's boyfriend or a violent ex-husband trying to find his fleeing wife and child. Craig Eliot and his clearly-overworked school counselor do their best, but in the end, it is up to the parents. This is demonstrated in a series of examples. One mother, hiding from her ex-husband, manages to make a life for herself and her son within the school, volunteering her time and supporting her child. Theirs' is a success story. Another mother is understandably frustrated by her difficult son, but her only solution is to send him to his father, who also doesn't want him, leading eventually to tragedy. Other parents are supportive of their children in the wrong way, urging them to "stick up for themselves" and turning them into future criminals.
Dumbleton doesn't suggest there is a solution for all problems, but he does manage to end on a hopeful note. He also manages to include the welcome leavening of humor, with a much-needed laugh after the novel's most stressful moment. There is no To Sir, With Love-type happy ending, but that's real life. | August 2003
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.