Dan Gemeinhart’s Scar Island: A Commentary On How Society Perceives And Treats Troubled Youth

This critical essay won a Gold Key from the 2022 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

     Society is an unforgiving place to troubled youth who, in a momentary lapse, commit a minor crime; it ultimately writes them off as worthless and incorrigible. Dan Gemeinhart, in his novel Scar Island, sets a frightening mood and a merciless tone — using dark imagery, violent language, and a foreboding setting — to convey his aversion towards a society that seeks to punish those they ultimately consider irredeemable.  In Gemeinhart’s novel, the Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys acts as a microcosm of society in terms of how it sees and treats juvenile offenders who are sent its way to become reformed and civilized; it thinks such boys need and deserve punishment. Yet Gemeinhart, by primarily focusing on his protagonist Jonathan, shows that these boys as a whole are actually good-natured yet insecure kids who need care, not abuse, to flourish. 

    Gemeinhart opens his narrative with the brutal words of two of his secondary characters — the boat pilot Cyrus and the reformatory’s Admiral — to establish how Slabhenge Reformatory, which is representative of society itself, perceives and treats these troubled boys. Right at the onset Cyrus, who is rowing Jonathan over to this reformatory that is located on a dark, isolated island, calls Jonathan a “dark youth:”  “(Slabhenge) is a dark place for dark youths such as yourself.  Troublemakers.  Delinquents.  Criminals. He savored each word in his mouth like a salty piece of bacon” (2). Cyrus labels Jonathan “dark” even before he has engaged in a single conversation with Jonathan; he simply assumes that Jonathan must have an evil soul if he was sent to the reformatory. Cyrus does not even know what offense Jonathan has committed and yet is ready to write him off as a troubled soul — a delinquent. Cyrus even “savors” each hurtful word as he enjoys taunting Jonathan, who he believes is deserving of the violent punishment that awaits him at Slabhenge. 

    When Jonathan arrives at the reformatory, he is introduced to the school’s Admiral, who ultimately embodies society’s damaging attitude towards juvenile offenders. The Admiral, after rounding up the rest of the boys, proceeds to dehumanize these boys by reminding them “what” they are:  “I thought it was a good idea…to remind you all what you are…Bloody, disgusting scabs, boys…The very scabs of civilized society” (44). The Admiral refers to each boy as a “what” — an object — and not a “who”  — a person worthy of human dignity — because he sees these boys as subhuman simply because each made a poor, rash decision in a split second of time.  

     The Admiral reduces these boys to ”scabs”(44).  A scab causes an otherwise healthy body to become bruised, so when the Admiral refers to them as scabs, he is saying that these boys are literally toxic to society; they are what ultimately make a civilized society unhealthy. The Admiral further demoralizes the boys by telling them that “they are good for nothing” and “the bad little bits that nobody wants” (46), for he believes that these “troubled” boys are ruining society just by being who they are; they are nothing more than blights on society. 

     The Admiral often refers to each of these boys as  “degenerates” (12) and  “incorrigible delinquents”(45), because he believes that they can never be reformed and should therefore never be accepted by society. How troublesome that the very same person who created this reformatory to reform these boys so that they can reenter society is the very same person who believes that they can never be reformed because they are immoral individuals with “dark” souls! The Admiral admits that these boys were not sent to Slabhenge to learn how to become ‘upstanding citizens;’ rather they were sent to a school that is situated on an isolated island far away from the mainland because society wanted to rid itself of these boys, so it can heal — so it can “cut its rottenness” (the boys) out of itself. The Admiral’s perception of the boys appears to be representative of how society sees these boys, and its perception and treatment of the boys feeds into what the boys believe about themselves — that they are unwanted and unloveable.      

     Gemeinhart further underscores societal bias against these wayward boys when he uses the element of suspense and chooses not to reveal why his protagonist Jonathan was sent to Slabhenge until twelve pages before the novel concludes.  He wants his readers to get to know Jonathan — a selfless, compassionate boy — before they judge him for his crime; he wants his readers to truly see how unfair and judgemental Cyrus, the Admiral, and in turn society is when it comes to their perception and consequent treatment of boys like Jonathan. 

     Ultimately, the reader discovers that Jonathan never committed the crime for which he was sent to this reformatory: though he had previously engaged in small acts of arson — lighting objects in a wastebasket on fire and then extinguishing them — he did not set the fire that killed his beloved sister Sophia.  Again, using the element of suspense, Gemeinhart waits til the end of the novel to tell us that his sister created the very fire that tragically killed her and that sent her guilt-ridden, tortured but innocent brother to Slabhenge. Jonathan is guilt-ridden because he knows that his sister had seen him light small fires in the past, so he feels responsible when she creates a deadly, out-of-control fire with his matches. Jonathan had desperately tried but failed to save his sister’s life which is why he now bears permanent scars on his arms (and permanent scars in his soul).

     Nevertheless, Gemeinhart wants his readers, at first, to assume that Jonathan must have committed an awful crime to be sent to Slabhenge, which seems virtually indistinguishable from a prison.  When describing Slabhenge and its surroundings, Gemeinhart pointedly uses dark imagery and violent language, because he wants to illustrate his position that juvenile offenders who receive punishment rather than guidance to reverse their ill-advised ways feel that much more misdirected and lost. Gemeinhart creates a foreboding setting by painting a grim, frightening picture of Slabhenge:  its several “hulking” towers “stabbed up” into the black clouds (3) as the “green-black” waves “smashed” up against them. Cyrus informs Jonathan that the sea which surrounds the reformatory punishes those who try to escape by “dashing their brains against those walls” (5).  The reformatory’s rooms are like “jail cells” with no light (20) and its windows are “black” and “barred” and shaped like “tombstones” (6) — a reference to death. A “raging” storm continues to press all around the towers, “screaming and pounding” its windows. 

     Gemeinhart, through his word choice and dark imagery, is showing how dangerous Slabhenge — i.e. society — is to these boys’ mental states.  He even personifies the darkness that eternally surrounds Slabhenge as a menacing wild beast that “chokes,” (22) “suffocates,” (87) and “growls” (86). Jonathan literally can’t handle the “eye choking darkness…so total and suffocating.  His eyes gasped…(as) they found no light to breathe” (88). Jonathan finds the darkness intolerable, because it forces him to be alone with his torturous thoughts. Slabhenge administrators deliberately keep the reformatory and its surroundings pitch black to mentally torment these boys. 

     The administrators also paradoxically support physical punishment as a way to teach these boys to be civil.  There is a device at Slabhenge called the Sinner’s Sorrow which was literally designed to physically inflict harm to the boys as it burns the victims’ knees. A boy kneels on this bench to atone for his ‘sins’ and is supposed to not only expect/anticipate the excruciating pain but accept it, as he is made to believe he deserves this drastic punishment. Gemeinhart vividly describes this device with the same violent language and dark imagery that he used to describe Slabhenge:   it “stands in darkness,” its wood “black” (138); it is personified as a vicious creature with a “biting edge” that leaves its victims with “screaming knees”(139). Gemeinhart then juxtaposes these dark and violent images with innocent images of the boys as they playfully “grin” and “laugh” (159).

     Gemeinhart intentionally adds layers of characterization to the boys at Slabhenge to show that they are not apathetic and dangerous — as society would have one believe — but actually thoughtful, (yet misguided). Even Sebastian, the group’s bully who has never really felt understood or loved by anyone because he was raised in an orphanage and has spent his whole life shuttled between foster homes, senses when Jonathan is sad and checks in with him to make sure he is okay. Jonathan ultimately has an epiphany that no one is “the reformatory type” who is deserving of abuse — not Miguel, who is always flashing a goofy grin (73) and was only sent to Slabhenge for “skipping school a few times” (53), not Tony who is always cooking up fun concoctions for the kids to try, and not Walter, who is always laughing and “begging kids to come and play with him (159); Walter was sent to Slabhenge for stealing a “one of a kind” purse for his mom, because he couldn’t afford anything on his own but really wanted to show his mom how special and loved she was.  Then there’s Jonathan’s closest friend, Colin, a perceptive, empathetic boy who ultimately helps Jonathan love himself again.

     Though Gemeinhart believes that all the boys deserve redemption and should not be defined by their crimes, he primarily hones in on Jonathan to expose society’s parochial and often faulty view of troubled youth.  He uses Jonathan’s letters to his parents to reflect both Jonathan’s mental anguish and his selflessness — two characteristics unbefitting of a societal “punk” or “troublemaker” (61).  There are five letters sprinkled throughout the entire novel with each letter ending with “Please give my love to Sophia.” Prior to being sent to Slabhenge, Jonathan honored his sister’s memory and expressed his undying love for Sophia by bringing flowers to her grave because Sophia had always loved flowers; now that he is at Slabhenge, he is insistent that his parents “give his love to Sophia” by continuing the tradition of bringing Sophia flowers. 

     In one of Jonathan’s first letters home to his parents, he shows his selflessness when he explains, “I don’t know anything…But I know that I think about you.  Kind of a lot” (145).  Despite Jonathan’s horrific living conditions, he can’t help but to think about his parents and their emotional well-being — not about himself.  Even on Jonathan’s first night at Slabhenge, when he was being deprived of his basic needs and was shivering, lonely, cold, and hungry, he could only think about his grief and his love for his sister.  Gemeinhart reveals, “After a few moments, (Jonathan’s) thoughts were no longer for himself or for his cold or his hunger…His thoughts were for Sophia.  And his silent tears…were for her too” (25).  Gemeinhart intentionally paints Jonathan — early on in the novel — as a selfless, loving brother to counteract the Admiral’s false perception of Jonathan.  The readers are not yet aware of what crime Jonathan has committed, but they know that they are not to trust the Admiral’s account of Jonathan.

     Gemeinhart further shows that Jonathan is both a caring and remorseful boy in Jonathan’s third letter to his parents, in which Jonathan writes “I’m sorry” six times:  “I know you told me not to say sorry….But I have to.  It’s all I can say.  Over and over and over…I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry” (145).  A guilt-ridden Jonathan can’t stop beating himself up for something that was a tragic accident.  He repeatedly apologizes, though he is ultimately not responsible for Sophia both setting and perishing in the deadly fire.  The only person that he has not apologized to is himself, but self-forgiveness is not something that Jonathan is able to achieve until the conclusion of the novel.  Regardless, Jonathan’s internal struggles underscore that Jonathan is indeed not — as the Admiral would have one believe — an “unapologetic” “degenerate,” a point which Gemeinhart repeatedly makes throughout the novel.  

     In fact, when a fierce, furious storm continually worsens at Slabhenge, Jonathan totally disregards his own personal safety to rescue a drowning Colin and ultimately bring all the other boys to safety. How, then, can society deem Jonathan a worthless, rotten criminal when he is such a selfless, giving soul?  Gemeinhart wants his readers to ask themselves that very question!

     By contrasting dark imagery and violent language to Jonathan’s heartfelt letters and heroic actions, Gemeinhart clearly reveals why he ultimately wrote this frightening novel:  he wants society to stop punishing and start supporting troubled youth who commit minor offenses in a moment of weakness, because abusive treatment will only lead to more anguish and pain.