The Wave Summary

Todd Strasser

The Wave

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The Wave Summary

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The Wave is a 1981 young adult novel by American author Todd Strasser, first published under the pen name Morton Rhue. Based on the teleplay for the TV movie by the same name and later adapted into novel form, it is loosely based on real events that happened at Ellwood P. Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California. The story centers around a teacher who, concerned that his students do not understand how the Nazis came to power in Germany and how easy it is for a population to get swept up by a charismatic leader preaching unity, creates a unifying salute that sweeps the school, soon getting out of control which results in the school turning on outsiders and acting like a dictatorship. The book explores themes of the teenage desire to fit in at all cost, the corruption of power, and the way history repeats itself, as well as exploring how a well-meaning experiment can create the same dangerous conditions that it intended to illustrate. Critically acclaimed and the winner of the 1981 Massachusetts Book Award for Children’s/Young Adult Literature, The Wave is still widely taught in schools as a cautionary tale about peer pressure and the desire to fit in that all teenagers face.

The Wave is set at the fictional Gordon High School in spring 1969. Centering on a history teacher named Ben Ross, his class of students, and the experiment that spins out of their class, the story begins as Ross is concluding a lesson on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The students are questioning how Hitler rose to power and why no one stood up to him. Ross finds he has no satisfying answers. That leads him to develop an experiment that he calls “The Wave” to illustrate to his students how easy it is to get swept up in a movement, even if it calls on them to act in a manner inconsistent with their values and beliefs. The next day, he introduces the class to a slogan, “Strength through discipline,” and urges them to live according to it. This includes adjusting their posture and adopting a stronger work ethic. The students, who like their teacher, take to the idea and find it empowering. When they continue this behavior into the next day, Ross decides to take the experiment further. He gives the class a group name, “The Wave,” and adds two more slogans: “Strength through community” and “Strength through action,” which urge the students to expand their scope out of his classroom. The Wave is led by Robert Billings, a once unpopular teenager who has been trying to escape the shadow of his popular older brother and now finds himself a leader.

Laurie Saunders, one of Ross’ students, is the first student to worry about the impact The Wave is having. She receives a letter to the school paper that she edits detailing how The Wave attempts to recruit other members with bullying. Many members of the football team are members of The Wave now, and they believe their focus will make them unbeatable on the field. However, they lose decisively against Clarkstown due to lacking proper training and planning. Laurie’s boyfriend, David, a football player, is confused by this, and Laurie decides to devote an issue of the school paper to The Wave and the negative impact she believes it’s had on the school. Teachers and the principal, all of whom have been worried by The Wave, congratulate her on her exposé, but many students are angry. David, who has been a member of The Wave since the beginning, pressures her to recant. When she refuses, he gets angry and shoves her to the ground. He is horrified by what he has done and realizes how dangerous The Wave is. The two of them, now on the same side, go to Mr. Ross’s home and ask him to help them stop The Wave. He agrees, but tells them they have to trust how he does it the next day.

The next day, Mr. Ross calls a Wave meeting in the auditorium, and asks that only Wave members be present. They gather in a style reminiscent of the Nazi rallies, even wearing armbands with the insignia they created for The Wave. He tells them that they are only one school involved in the movement that’s sweeping the nation, and that the leader of the whole organization will speak to them now about creating a National Wave Party. He then projects the image of Adolf Hitler. Everyone is shocked, and Ross reveals that there is no Wave party, and that their obedience to a concept that does not exist led them to mimic Nazi tactics. Shocked, they abandon their Wave items and shuffle out of the room, ashamed. Robert, the student who found himself becoming the ringleader of the Wave and saw his previous unpopularity fade away, takes it the hardest, hanging back, not sure what to do next. Mr. Ross sees this and asks him to come with him, so they can get a bite to eat and talk.

Todd Strasser is an American author of more than 140 young adult and middle grade novels. Working in many genres, he is known for exploring controversial topics including Nazism, teenage delinquency, and school shootings in his books for teenagers, while his middle-grade novels tend to be lighter and often deal with sci-fi and fantasy concepts. He is perhaps best known for his Help! Im Trapped… series focusing on an unfortunate teenager who keeps swapping bodies with another person or animal. Also publishing under the pen names Morton Rhue and T.S. Rue, his books remain mainstays of school libraries.