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Book Review: The Gatekeepers by Jen Lancaster

Let me begin by saying this: It has been a long time since I have been so very conflicted about a book. If you have read this book, I really would like to discuss it with you.

PLEASE NOTE: THIS BOOK DEALS WITH SOME VERY TRIGGERING ISSUES INCLUDING SUICIDE AND EATING DISORDERS. ALSO, I CAN’T DISCUSS THIS BOOK FULLY WITHOUT INCLUDING HUGE SPOILERS.

But first, let me share with you the Publisher’s Book Description:

thegatekeepersAnyone passing through North Shore, IL, would think this was the most picture-perfect place ever, with all the lakefront mansions and manicured hedges and iron gates. No one talks about the fact that the brilliant, talented kids in this town have a terrible history of throwing themselves in front of commuter trains, and that there’s rampant opioid abuse that often leads to heroin usage.

Meet Simone, the bohemian transfer student from London, who is thrust into the strange new reality of the American high school; Mallory, the hyper-competitive queen bee; and Stephen, the first generation genius who struggles with crippling self-doubt. Each one is shocked when lovable football player Braden takes his own life and the tragedy becomes a suicide cluster. With so many students facing their own demons, can they find a way to save each other—as well as themselves?

Inspired by the true events that happened in the author’s home town.

Karen’s Thoughts

In a lot of the discussion surrounding this book, the author and publisher acknowledge the recent controversy surrounding Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and suggest that this is a safer alternative, but I am not sure that I agree with that assessment. I think that within the course of this book the author makes a lot of important points, but as someone who has depression/anxiety and sometimes suicidal ideation, I don’t know that this read was any safer or less triggering. In fact, my teenage daughter has recently struggled with a friend that has suicidal ideation and I would not want her to read this book.

For one, I find the concept of The Gatekeepers as a whole very concerning. The premise is based on the true story of a police officer who would stroll the Golden Gate bridge and look for people whom he believed might be considering jumping. By just walking up and engaging them in conversation, it is believed that he helped prevent a lot of suicides, which is of course an amazing and encouraging story. So at the end of this book, the teens who have just lost several friends to suicide decide that they are going to be gatekeepers, that they will work to be more engaged and notice the signs and try and stop more of their classmates from committing suicide. Although I found the goal laudable, I felt that it put a lot of responsibility for others on these teens, teens who are already struggling with loss and guilt. I just spent the last few weeks telling my teen that she could be present for her friend who was struggling with depression but that it wasn’t her fault and she couldn’t fix him, nor was it reasonable for anyone to expect her to do so. My teen did everything right, she contacted an adult (me), we called the police because we didn’t know how to get a hold of his parents, but this was only after he had made outright statements that were clearly suicidal in intent. Many of the teens in this book didn’t have that luxury as presented in the text of the story and I feel strongly that the overall message of this book could lead to a lot of guilt for teens. And let’s keep in mind we are talking about teens, not an adult police officer who is trained to deal with a wide variety of intense situations.

Although I want to make sure that I point out that when a suicide happened and the survivors expressed guilt, most of their parents (there was one truly awful parent here) did the work of re-assuring their teen that they couldn’t have known and they aren’t responsible. But then there are lots of little points in the text, including the overall creation of the Gatekeepers, which can be seen as contradicting this message. And it’s important to point out that this is based on a true story. I liked the idea of the creation of a community center, of training to learn the signs of suicide, of being more present and a better friend, just not the implicit message that somehow these teens could prevent suicide, because that’s not always how mental health works. Although this book doesn’t do a great job of talking about mental health, but more on that in a moment.

And as I mentioned before, some of the adults in the book say and do really important things surrounding the discussion of suicide. For example, when a new student rushes to take pictures of the first suicide while she is there and write a story for the school newspaper, that story is squashed. Eventually an administrator tells her that the reason the story was not published is because of the contagion effect of teenage suicide and how when one teen commits suicide, several others will often follow and they want to not glamorize or draw attention to the suicides. This was a good and important conversation.

Another concern I had was the framing of suicide in this novel. It is emphasized again and again that these suicides are occurring because of the high academic standards and stress put on these students, which can be a cause for suicide. However, The Gatekeepers does a really poor job, I feel, of addressing mental health issues overall. One teen says to a friend at one point that he is concerned that he may be bipolar, but that topic isn’t really fully addressed. Another teen has a full blown eating disorder, and that topic isn’t really dealt with in a way that I am comfortable with either (more on that in a minute). And finally, there is some very real drug use and addiction in this book, it even talks about the current Opioid crisis, but then there seems to be almost no legal consequences to a teen who is known to be a distributor. In fact, he is just gives up selling after one of the suicides and later becomes a hero figure as he is harmed in a car crash by one of the very teens he was previously selling to. Stress is talked about a lot, but mental health issues less so, and I think it is irresponsible to talk about suicide without talking about mental health.

One character in particular really stood out as problematic, Mallory. Mallory obviously suffers from body dysphoria and an eating disorder. Every student seems to be aware of this and alludes to it. At one point Mallory even says to an adult in authority something about why would they trust her, she’s afraid of a banana. The eating disorder always hangs there, alluded to, but it’s never really fully addressed. In fact, at one point Mallory, who does peer to peer counseling, is counseling another student who is not happy with her body and that scene is really difficult to read. As someone who spent most of my teen years and early 20s dealing with anorexia and has heard teens talk about their body issues, I would in no way feel comfortable giving them this book because of how horribly the issues of Mallory are addressed.

I will also say that this book suffers from some really standard stereotypes. There is the bohemian transfer student from England, the geeks, the super chill non-conformist dude who makes movies and smokes pot, the various athletes, and the Asian American student with a Tiger mom who puts so much pressure on him that he ends up being one of the teens to die by suicide. The characters are given a bit more depth then a standard stereotype, but it seemed like a lazy starting point for character development.

So while I really liked and valued some of what this book had to say about suicide and thought that it had profound moments, overall I can’t in good faith recommend this book. Not as someone who has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. Not as someone who has wrestled with an eating disorder her entire life. And not as someone who has worked with teens who have done the same. I feel like I understood what the author was trying to achieve with this book, but that she did not successfully achieve it. Mental health issues are really hard to do well in YA fiction, in part because I think they can have such an important impact, and I don’t feel that this book achieves what it set out to achieve.