Saundra Mitchell, The Prom, Penguin Books Ltd., September 2019, 272 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780241428214
The Prom is based on a highly acclaimed Broadway musical, by the same name, about a high school girl, Emma, who identifies as a lesbian.
Emma and her girlfriend, Alyssa, live in the town of Edgewater, in Indiana, where church attendance and adherence to “traditional” values are important. The first line of the book sums up the problem – “Note to self: Don’t be gay in Indiana”. The bullying and rejection Emma has suffered since coming out, intensifies after attempting to assert her wish to take a girl to the prom. On top of that, it seems doubtful that her closeted girlfriend, Alyssa, will even have the courage to be her date at the prom, as that would mean publicly coming out as gay. Then Emma receives unwanted support from an unexpected source. A busload of Broadway actors arrives at her school to protest on her behalf and the furore that their protest creates leaves Emma overwhelmed, fearful and doubtful that the extra attention will help. Unfortunately, Emma’s worst fears are realised when it turns out that the actors’ protest is essentially a publicity ploy.
The book sensitively explores the difficulties and dilemmas that young gay people face in “coming out”, especially if they anticipate or experience a backlash from their community. Emma’s feistiness and courage in “coming out” to her parents and school, despite serious consequences, is contrasted with Alyssa’s fearfulness and procrastination to reveal her homosexuality.
Emma and Alyssa’s characters are well developed as their experiences, feelings, thoughts and struggles are described in the first person, in either the voice of Emma or Alyssa. The language is beautifully crafted with many original and often humorous metaphors, in teenage relatable language. One example is a description of Emma’s intense emotions “… my stomach is full of weasels and they are chasing their tails at top speed.” Another is Emma’s sarcastic appraisal of actress Dee Dee – “I wouldn’t be surprised if she ate little baby harp seals for breakfast.” And Alyssa’s discomfort at the first prom is described as feeling “… pushed and pulled and shoved …” and she refers to the disco lighting as “Sharp daggers of lights that flash …”
The message of the story is serious and the feared or actual ostracism, that Emma and Alyssa experience is heart wrenching. But the overall tone of the book is lightened with humour (Emma has a dark and sarcastic sense of humour) and by the characters of the eccentric Broadway actors.
The Prom is an engaging story for teenagers, with relatable, universal themes – friendship, loyalty, compassion. and having the courage to stand up for one’s principles. But mostly it is about the human need to be accepted by one’s family and peer group and the need to form close bonds in caring, committed relationships. There are no explicit sexual references that would render it unsuitable for younger teens.
Reviewed by Barbara Swartz