“Words matter. This what (the teacher) has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were looking for the our voice.” Belzhar is about the power of writing and the power of books. The narrator of the novel, Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue, is enrolled at The Wooden Barn in Vermont, an institution dedicated to the care of “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” The Wooden Barn is the type of sanctuary a sensitive, difficult and well-to-do teenager is shuttled off to when, as Jam’s mother puts it, “We don’t know what else to do with you, babe!” She has been chosen for a peculiar class, Special Topics in English, where only a few select students will study with a respected, older teacher, to study only one writer in-depth. This year the poetess Sylvia Plath has been chosen for study. Journals are distributed for twice weekly writing about any topic. Each student in the group has suffered a life-altering calamity and when they write in their journal they go back to the time of their trauma to relive the time before it happened. Belzhar (pronounced BEL-jhar in homage to Plath’s “The Bell Jar”) is their code name for this trance state. When they return from Belzhar exactly five pages have been written in their journals, about what they did in the trance.
Wolitzer is a great writer. At times Belzhar was a page turner. Had I known it was a young adult book I likely wouldn’t have read it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.