When Mrs. Price begins to single out Justine as her special student, she can’t help but feel special, especially having recently lost her mother to cancer. Mrs. Price’s affections are fickle, so this causes a ripple in the class. Catherine Chidgey, a New Zealand novelist, writes “Pet” with a deft hand, reminding the reader how these events from childhood echo through our lives, affecting the adults we become. She fills the story with just enough references to Holly Hobbie bedsheets and Duran Duran to coat this Gen X reader’s cold heart in a cozy wrap of nostalgia.
Amongst this story of a teacher striding across boundaries most people’s common sense compels them not to cross, are the cruelty of children, the casual racism of the 1980s—all thematically organized under the moral superiority of the Catholic church. Sometimes Mrs. Price is an excellent teacher, engaging in what today would be model active learning-style teaching, such as exploring the sea shore and observing the local food chain in action. Other times she displays top dog behavior on the same level as her twelve-year-old students, like the ultimate mean girl. “It’s nature, my darling. If you’re at the bottom of the food chain you can’t do anything about it, and if you’re at the top, well, you can’t do anything about it either. It’s what you’re born to.”
When things start disappearing from the classroom, like the special pen Justine’s mother gave her before she died, everyone assumes Justine’s friend Amy is the thief. For one thing, Amy hasn’t had anything stolen from her, and for another, Amy and her family are immigrants, outsiders to the community. Mrs. Price does nothing to quell the suspicions and even publicly supports the idea that Amy has stolen the small treasures from unattended desks. “Dirty thief, our classmates called in her wake. Liar. I wish you were dead. Why don’t you kill yourself? Mrs. Price heard them but never intervened.” This drives a wedge between Amy and her classmates, but especially Justine. Meanwhile, Mrs. Price draws Justine deeper and deeper into her circle, inviting her to her home, inserting herself into Justine’s home life, taking her shopping for her first bra, and becoming involved in her first period.
Few adults in Justine’s life look askant at her role as “teacher’s pet,” with only one nun at the school seemingly wise enough to notice the unhealthy relationship this teacher brews with her students. All the others are quite easily assuaged by the privilege of her beauty, thinness, whiteness, and outward displays of kindness. After all, what could possibly be the downside to being a teacher’s pet? But Chidgey shows how being caught in the snare of Mrs. Price means being fiddled with like a mouse by a cat. Chidgey amplifies the tiny world of child and her teacher, so often a woman, who, perhaps otherwise powerless, has unlimited dominion in the universe of her classroom. In the hands of a narcissist, that’s an authority you might as well press to the extreme. Like the eccentric Miss Brodie or the pedophilic teacher in Alissa Nutting’s satirical “Tampa,” Mrs. Price is a fascinating character in the realm of novels about teachers and how they can influence so much more than just our education.
By Catherine Chidgey
Europa Editions, 332 pages