St. Ambrose School for Girls: Scandal and Murder


The St. Ambrose School for Girls

By Jessica Ward

Gallery Books, 356 pages.



There's nothing like a private school for a tale of jealousy, sexual predation, and murder.


Jessica Ward spins such a yarn in The Saint Ambrose School for Girls. Ward writes about what she knows and those familiar with western Massachusetts immediately grasp what Ward intends. Saint Ambrose is a Gothic brick campus in the small town of Greensboro Falls on the Massachusetts New Hampshire border. It’s a dead ringer for the old Northfield School for Girls. Ward is a graduate of Northfield Mount Hermon* and did her undergraduate work at nearby Smith College. OK, so St. Ambrose and Greensboro Falls are Northfield.


There is much to commend about the educational excellence of private schools, but young people living in what is essentially a rural cloister can be a different matter. After all, the students are aged 14 to 18 and to the degree that they lie rely upon adult role supervision at all, it is their teachers and house parents. Mostly, though, they take their cues from each other. They are prone to cliques, shifting friendships, and the vicissitudes of the maturation process. Quite a few are children of privilege with a propensity to look down their noses at those who aren't.


Sarah Taylor is certainly not a rich kid. She is the daughter of single parent Tera who tries too hard to fit in with other parents on drop-off day of fall semester. This mortifies Sarah, who sees her mother as bargain basement amidst a runway of Versace. In her mind, the latter exude faux politeness but can't wait for her mother to shut up. She’s probably right, but, as the saying goes, Sarah has issues. She's a Goth, bipolar, has made suicide attempts, and needs a heavy dose of lithium to stay stable. She's not violent, but she is anxious, excitable, and prone to fantasizing. She also hates sports, a no-no at private academies.


Sarah’s world at Saint Ambrose clashes with that of Greta Stanhope and her posse. Greta comes from money, is preened to the max, and is a bully. Ellen “Strots” Strotsberry also comes from serious money, but doesn't seem to care much for Greta and her crowd. Strots is also working on her ‘tude by being a field hockey jock, dressing down, smoking, and cultivating being unconventional,. She's also a closeted lesbian because officially there's no sex on campus and also because it's 1991 and it wasn't always safe to be out, especially in Northfield excuse me, Greensboro Falls. Strots befriends Sarah to annoy Greta, who is also awful to another scholarship girl, Keisha, an African American and a field hockey teammate of Strots.


Ward throws in other elements common to melodramas about private schools. There's Nick, a hunky English teacher who drives a vintage Porsche. He’s married but his wife is a much in demand researcher who is seldom on campus. That makes it easier for students to swoon over Nick. So too does a dowdy female math colleague, but the girls vie for his attention. Some feel very proprietary about demanding it. And what would a private academy be without scandals, fights, accusations of cheating, wealthy donors seeking scapegoats to deflect guilt from their little darlings, illicit behaviors, long-buried campus secrets, Mountain Day, a wicked dean, and some good old American violence and tragedy?


Ward is an excellent storyteller but as you can tell from my snarkiness, I wouldn't call The Saint Ambrose School for Girls a prose tour de force. Ward, who also writes paranormal romance novels under the name J. R. Ward, knows her audiences. Her novel is filled with ambience that keeps you reading to find out who did what to whom and why. You won't find many departures from the template of others in the sullied underbelly of private schools genre. That said, if you're looking for a diverting beach or airplane read this will do the trick.


Rob Weir


* For those unfamiliar with the Connecticut Valley, there used to be two schools on opposite sides of the Connecticut River, Northfield School for Girls located in the town and Mount Hermon School for Boys in a wooded area of Gill, Massachusetts. After the 2004-05 session, the Northfield campus was closed, and enrollment reduced. Both male and female students now attend the Mount Hermon campus. (The old Northfield campus has been sold.) 


The Vaster Wilds: Best Novel of the Year?



The Vaster Wilds (2023)

By Lauren Groff

Riverhead Books, 255 pages.



In just five novels Lauren Groff has taken us to Cooperstown, Florida, hippie communes, a 12th century nunnery, and Jamestown colony. The Vaster Wilds is about as good as fiction guess gets. You could think of it as Thoreau stripped of romantic notions.


If somewhere in your educational career you were told that the House of Burgesses was the cauldron of American democracy, you were the victim of a hoax. Jamestown was a nightmarish disaster for the first 30 years after the English landed there in 1607. It was controlled by elites on behalf of the Virginia Company, a joint-stock venture funded by London investors. Settlers were charged with finding gold or other marketable commodities.


Most of those in the settlement were forced to go there. Jamestown was a place of "unfreedom": indentured labor, poor people, enslaved Africans and Indians, servants, and orphans. There was no more dangerous place in the world for an English person to be. From its onset Virginia was a place of starvation. Arrogant leaders believed that the native population would feed the colony in exchange for English goods. They might have had a better chance of that had they not warred against Indians. In campaigns that reached the epitome of stupidity, soldiers burned Indian fields even though the Jamestown death rate from starvation hovered at about 80% per year.


The protagonist of The Vaster Fields is a young girl variously called “Girl," "Wench," "Fool," and "Zed.” In England, though, she was the servant of a cultured mistress who taught her how to dance, dress, and read in exchange for taking care of toddler Bess. Groff's novel is short on dialogue but long on poetic evocations. It is not until about 40 pages into the book that we learn the girl's name is Lamentations, or at least that's what she believes as she is an orphan. Lamentations adores Bess and her mistress. Alas, when the mistress is widowed she is wooed by Rev. Callat who becomes stern and cruel. Things erode quickly, but what comes next is even worse when the minister decides to venture to North America. As a servant, Lamentations spends most of her time below decks though she does acquire a lover on the ship, a Dutch glass blower not destined to follow her ashore.


The minister's wife is appalled by filthy, lice-ridden, culturally bereft Jamestown. Lamentations tries to protect Bess but soon the Callats are starving like everyone else in Jamestown. The colony descends into barbarism, the minister becomes even more cruel, and though Lamentation carries his last name she thinks that “Callat was an insult not a name....” Horror besets the colony: murder, thieving, Indian attacks, even cannibalism. As settlers die, Lamentations steals a sack, cloak, flint, two coverlets, and a pewter cup. In her flight through the frosty night she finds a dead soldier and appropriates his boots.


The rest of the book is Lamentations’ attempt to stay alive. She is still a girl but one of determination and adaptability. Because she is alone, the novel is largely narrated by her thoughts. She observes, “The world... was worse than savage, the world was unmoved. It did not care... what happened to her.” Her vague goal is to find the French, having heard on the ship that they were nicer than the English, but she has little idea how far they are from Virginia. You name it, and she faces it: a pursuing bounty hunter, wolves, bears, hunger, a concussion, Indians, hobnails coming through her boots, and the very real threat of death at every turn. If you wonder what she ate, a sample includes baby squirrels plucked from a nest, bark, grubs, and anything else that will staunch her hunger. Along the way, Lamentations loses dogmatic faith for something more primal, her faith paralleling the way she must live. She understands, “There could be no fight in this world, only submission.”


The Vaster Wilds is a short book that reads like an epic. It is a remarkable piece of writing that makes you feel as if you are the voice inside our protagonist's head. In a roundabout way, it is also a book with proto-feminist and environmentalist themes. It will shake your view of early America. I would venture to say it is better history than is found in high school textbooks. I sincerely doubt I will read a better novel this year.


Rob Weir


Beau travail Doesn't Translate Well





Beau travail (1999)

Directed by Claire Denis

Pyramide Distribution, 92 minutes, Not-rated

In French with subtitles



French auteur Claire Denis scored big with her first feature Chocolat (1988). Critics and film professors loved her 1999 film Beau travail and hailed it as a masterpiece. But audiences, especially in North America, didn't know what to make of it. It's a very austere film that mirrors the detachment of the three principal characters.


Although it is based loosely on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, much about Beau travail is distant and unfamiliar. Unless you can endure slow pacing, uncertain motives, and the ambiguity of events that might or might not be playing out before your eyes, you could find Beau travail a cold, unrelatable film that does not justify its kudos.


My use of the term “cold” is deliberately ironic, as it takes place in a blazing hot and parched section of the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti near the end of French colonial rule (1977). It involves a French Foreign Legion outpost in which we sense its commander (Michel Subor) and his adjunct-chef (think sergeant) Galoup (Denis Levant) know they are playing a meaningless role in a dying drama. They appear bored, but maintain the fiction of discipline  out of an equally outmoded sense of honor. Or perhaps they think they can position themselves for some future advancement. Like most things in Beau travail, motives are hard to ascertain.


Gung ho recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) is the fly in the ointment. He works hard to impress, apparently unaware that he is breaking a stint of malaise. When he helps rescue a helicopter crew, he is popular with other soldiers, but this somehow makes Galoup jealous. Why?


Exactly! This is unclear because the film is told in flashbacks from Galoup’s point of view and he would probably be considered an unreliable narrator. That is, if he spoke more than a handful of words. Thus, we don't know whether his point of view is what occurred, an ex post facto salve to a guilty conscience, a dream, or fiction from the get- go. To top it off, there appears to be unrequited homoeroticism on Galoup’s part. Does he wish to train, kill, or sodomize Sentain?


Gallup drives Sentain to an arid salt pan and dumps him out to find his way back to base. Temperatures in Djibouti are routinely over 100°F and a broken compass is the only clue we have of his fate. Did he die? Did nomads save him? Did he dessert? Even the film's title is enigmatic. It can mean good work or beautiful work, and in this case the small gradations of meaning probably matter.


Beau travail is as much an intellectual exercise as a movie–a montage of landscape, simmering tension, clashing colors, black bodies, white bodies, uniformed commanders, stripped-to-the-waist soldiers, sweat, and precariousness.


Does all of this add up to significance or nothing at all? The ending of the film is memorable, but weird. It's a kind of Greek chorus but is it Zorba-like joy or a signifier of tragedy? You tell me.


Rob Weir