by Joan Knickerbocker
An adolescent girl with an absent father and a disinterested mother attempts to integrate into an all-male military academy that contains a secret society determined to keep out the first female cadets. The potential for Rites of Passage (2014), by Joy Hensley, to sink into a series of clichés and to read like a script for a made-for-television movie is often very close to the surface, but it never takes over the story. Some of the antagonists appear to be stock characters, but the true nature of many of the characters, especially the perceived enemies, isn’t revealed until the end of the novel.
The plot is fast-paced, and Hensley is deft at revealing essential bits of information at the exact moment the reader is wondering about a particular character or event. The writing style is straight forward and the vocabulary accessible. Sam McKenna is the daughter of a career officer and the sister of two military brothers. Her determination to attend the Virginia-based Denmark Military Academy and to succeed with a military career began with a dare from her now dead brother—she never could say no to a dare. However, the verbal and physical abuse Sam endures at the academy is intense.
“Turning worms into warriors” translates into constant physical and mental training for all the cadets, but Sam is singled out for extensive demeaning and abusive treatment. The hatred toward her, at first covert and whispered, intensifies as her excellent physical and mental abilities help her surpass several of her male counterparts. The attempts to force her to quit escalate to assault and attempted murder. She discovers that her enemies are situated in powerful positions, both in and beyond the academy. A coveted position in the secret and powerful Pandora Society is being offered to cadets who are willing to do whatever is necessary to keep DMA an all-male institution.
Sam comes to trust her assigned mentor, Reverend Cook, a long-time friend of her father, and she discovers she has allies in town: Jax, a girl who had been accepted at the DMA but chose not to attend, and Tim, a former close friend of her deceased brother. A brief romance begins between Sam and Tim’s younger brother, Drill, a cadet who wants to protect her. They both realize that a personal relationship would jeopardize their success at military school and their future careers. “Rank and duty would always get in the way.” The climax of the story is exciting; the resolution neatly answers remaining questions about the cadets and Sam’s family.
Rites of Passage touches on complex issues such as women and gays in the military, suicide, the abuse of power, and personal sacrifice. It is also about friendship and trust, courage and fear, and being strong. Hensley dedicated her novel “to our servicemen and women, and to all those who protect―because everyone deserves a fighting chance . . .” Rites of Passage is exciting, and at times intense.
Appropriate for high school and beyond