Beth Maller returns to her job as a high school guidance counselor shortly after her teenage son, Danny, is killed in a car accident. Beth didn’t want Danny to drive that snowy night, but her husband insisted the roads were safe. Beth blames him for Danny’s death, and she blames herself for allowing fear of confrontation to paralyze her. Now back at work, Beth rails against the everyday injustices she had overlooked until her world cracked open. Her new circumstances cause Beth to become a major player in the moral battles being waged at Meadow Brook High—where homophobia snakes through the halls, administrators cling to don’t-rock-the-boat policies, and mean girls practice bullying as if it were a sport. While Beth struggles to find her “new normal,” she learns to speak out, risking her career, her marriage, and the very life she’s learned to embrace.
Danny’s Mom illustrates what really goes on behind the closed doors of our schools, from the perspective of the adults who are charged with keeping our children safe. It is a powerful novel that will appeal to all readers, especially mothers, the millions of adults who work in our schools, and the LGBTQ community.
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About the Author
Elaine Wolf is an award-winning writer and the acclaimed author of Camp, a young adult novel (Sky Pony Press). Now well-known as “the anti-bullying novelist,” she once worked as a high school teacher and public school district program administrator. The world she writes of is one she is passionate about and knows well. Elaine lives with her husband in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
Danny's MomA Novel
By Elaine Wolf
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2012 Elaine Wolf
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePeople would say it began with the snow. Yet in the end, I could see it started long before last winter.
Danny was in his room while Joe and I argued about letting him drive that night.
"Jesus Christ, Beth!" Joe said as he stepped from the bathroom. "You've got to let him grow up already. We've been through this a hundred times."
"Please, Joe." I spoke softly, anxious to hide our quarrel from Danny. "I know you told him he could go to Noah's, but another storm's coming. It's not safe for him to drive."
Joe leaned into the doorframe and sucked in a long breath. His citrus shaving cream perfumed the hallway.
"If it wasn't safe, do you think I'd let him go? You have to stop babying him."
My stomach twisted. What's the matter with you, Joe? I wanted to say. I'm not babying him. I'm only treating him like a seventeen-year-old who just got his license. But my mouth filled with cotton; I couldn't push the words out.
"And don't change our plans with Tom and Callie," he went on. "I've been thinking of that steak all week. I'm not staying home to play chauffeur tonight. Danny doesn't need us to drive him anymore."
That's when Danny came out of his room.
"Please, Mom." His eyes found mine. "Dad said I could go. I already told Noah. And all the other parents said yes. Even the girls'. Please, Mom."
"Danny, I don't know—"
"Come on. You gotta let me. I won't take Dad's car. I'll take the Buick. Airbags and anti-lock brakes, right?"
"I'll wear my seatbelt. Promise. And anyhow, it's not even snowing yet."
Then Danny hugged me—just like that. Standing there in the hallway, in the summer scent, in the dead of winter, my son wrapped his arms around me. I felt the muscles he'd been working on since September.
Joe and I were at The Bay View Steakhouse with Callie and Tom Harris, our closest friends, when it happened. We had taken Tom's Jeep because Tom knows storms brew quickly in the Northeast.
That's why I should have said no. No, Danny. You can't drive to Noah's later. It's gonna snow again.
That's what my father would have urged me to say if only I'd have called him. Joe's wrong on this one, honey. Just tell Danny he can't take the car tonight. How long do you think he'll stay mad at you? Dad would have told me what I already knew: A teenager's resentment melts faster than snow.
Before the accident, I hadn't seen my father cry since the first time he heard me sing to my newborn son:
Hush, little baby. Don't say a word. Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
"Your mother used to sing that to you, Beth," Dad said, stroking Danny's tiny hand. "She would've been so happy and so very proud of you."
Then my father reminded me—as he always did—that after my mother died, I began biting my lower lip, chewing on it until a frayed, bloody rim outlined its edge. What I remember is that when I was seven and eight, toothpaste burned when I brushed.
After the accident, Dad came to see me every day for three weeks. Then I went back to work. Joe had headed off to JM Construction after only a week. Now everyone said I had to get back to Meadow Brook High School: Joe, Callie, even Bob Andrews, my principal, who had paid a visit and called a couple of times.
"Take as long as you need," Bob told me. "You've got plenty of unused sick days. But you know, Beth, the counseling center isn't the same without you, kiddo. So ... well ... maybe it's time to come back. Nobody else in Meadow Brook appreciates my ties."
I pictured my principal strumming his mustache and showing off his Beatles collection. Bob owns every Beatles CD and an assortment of Beatles ties, each illustrating a song. Whenever Bob wore one, he would find an excuse to come to the counseling center, where I'd guess the title and sing a line or two.
I don't know why, but I never forget lyrics. Tell me a phone number, it's gone in a second. Lyrics, though, live in my head forever.
But not in Joe's; he rarely remembers the words. Yet he loved to sing. He even signed us up for a song contest when Danny was in fourth grade. Winter vacation, 1993. We had gone to one of those old-fashioned family hotels with a never-ending agenda of silly games—bingo, charades, Name That Tune. In this particular contest, the activities director shouted a word and family teams had just one minute to call out songs with that word in the lyrics. We won Grand Catskill Resort T-shirts when I came up with eleven tunes for star. Danny high-fived me that whole afternoon.
He was good with lyrics too, even at that age. He loved music, though he never took up an instrument—unless you count his three-week stint with the trumpet, which he begged for when he was nine. That ended when the teacher told us Danny had to practice more, and Danny pleaded with me to let him quit.
So I admit Joe was right when he used to say Danny had two speeds: no interest and passion. The summer after tenth grade, Danny went to the British Virgin Islands with a student group of volunteers and came back a do-goodnik craving spicy chicken and reggae.
Joe smiled whenever he told anyone Danny helped build a house in Tortola. And to Danny he said, "Building's good, son. It's like I always say: If you can build a house, you can do anything."
When I heard that, it made me think of what Joe had said when we were dating: "Good fences don't make good neighbors, Beth. People who can build good fences make good neighbors."
After Danny came back from Tortola, reggae seeped through our house, filling the air with sad tales trapped in happy beats. Danny taught me to dance to it, to let the music pull my hips while my feet stayed still. We sang along with Bob Marley: "Buffalo Soldier"; "Get Up, Stand Up"; "I Shot the Sheriff." Sometimes Joe sang with us. And though he mangled the words, he tried all the same.
But Joe stopped singing after the accident. I noticed the silence when he showered. No reggae or pop classics booming through the spray. No humming my wake-up call while he dressed for work.
It didn't matter, though, that morning I went back to Meadow Brook High School. I didn't need help getting up; a nightmare jolted me awake.
I see it still, this dream in which I race to the tennis courts for Danny's match. Noah's on Court 1. He's playing without a partner.
"Hey, Noah!" I call. "Where's Dan?"
Noah bounces a ball before serving. "Don't know. Can't help you."
I spot Eric's mother in the parents' line up. "Joan, have you seen Dan?"
"Nope. Not here."
Coach Roberts stands behind Court 5.
"Coach!" I scream. "Where's Dan?"
"Gone, ma'am. So sorry."
That dream clung to me as I pulled myself out of bed. And though hot sweat soaked my nightgown, my icy bones didn't thaw. I wrapped myself in my navy flannel robe and worked my way downstairs.
The coffee maker hissed as I called Callie. Tom answered the phone.
"Hey, Tom. It's Beth. Didn't wake you, did I?"
"No way. It would take a miracle to sleep around here on a school day." Tom hesitated, as if deciding what to say next. "You okay?" he finally asked.
I battled tears. "Sure. I just need to talk to Callie."
"She's in the kitchen, I think. Hang on a sec."
I didn't hear Tom call Callie, but I did hear Ellen, their older daughter: "Dad, it's not fair! Mom said I could borrow her sweater, and stupid Mollie won't take it off!"
When Callie picked up, I cried.
"Another dream?" she asked.
"Yes. And Cal, I don't think ... I don't think I can go back yet. It's only three weeks since ... since the accident." As I said those words, I didn't know that everything had already changed for me—even Meadow Brook High.
"So here's the deal," Callie said, knowing I wasn't ready for before-school hall traffic, well-wishers at my office door, and teens who have problems and futures. "I already spoke to Bob. He's arranging first period coverage for me. It's just my photo class. They can have a study hall. So get yourself together. I'm picking you up at eight."
"Cal, I can't." My voice came slow and thick.
"Sure you can. You have to go back to work. You can't just sit around and cry all day. That doesn't do anyone any good."
I couldn't think of what to say, so I poured a cup of coffee and waited for Callie to tell me what to do next.
"Beth, you hear me? You have to get ready now."
Silently, I took a swig from my favorite mug, the one with Mom written on it.
"Just put on your gray dress with that scarf I gave you for your birthday," Callie instructed. "And don't worry about make-up or anything. I'll be there soon. Bob'll have my head if I'm not in by second period."
"Callie?" I took a moment, but all I could say was, "Thank you."
Then I called Dad to check in—despite the early hour. I needed his familiar Hey, honey. How's my girl? In the last few weeks, I had come to count on him as a bellows for my lungs, as if I couldn't get enough air until I'd hear my father's voice.
I lied and told him I was fine.
"Callie's picking me up. I don't know what I'd do without her." I swallowed hard. "And without you, Dad. Thanks."
"Oh, honey, I'll always be here for you. And please eat something before you go. Not just coffee. You're getting awfully thin."
I lied again when I said I would. Instead, I refilled my mug and took it upstairs, where I sat on the floor outside the closed door to Danny's room. As I warmed my hands on the word Mom, the memory of my dream stabbed me. And with the pain, I felt the truth: Danny is dead. He is never coming back.
Joe knocked into me when he dashed from the hall bathroom. I didn't feel the splash of coffee, didn't feel the burn. A few days later, I would notice the blister above my knee.
"Beth?" Joe said, studying me as if I were a ghost. "What are you doing on the floor?"
I couldn't answer, but in my head I screamed Fuck you, Joe! Fuck you! You killed my son!
Excerpted from Danny's Mom by Elaine Wolf Copyright © 2012 by Elaine Wolf. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great read. It's hard to find a book with some kind of message. This was a good book
Great for book clubs! My book club discussed this book last week, and it was the best book club meeting we had because there was so much to talk about: bullying, homophobia, keeping our children safe, the role of teachers and administrators, marriage, family relationships, and friendship. I highly recommend Danny's Mom! It's a great read, and it's perfect for book clubs.
Elaine Wolf did it again -- what a fabulous book! I ended up reading the whole thing in one day, as I got so engrossed in the story that I didn't want to put it down. I'm so impressed by the way the author managed to take so many very difficult topics (bullying at school, bullying in the work place, losing a child, marital problems), tackle the emotions associated with all of these difficult topics, and weave it all into one compelling story. Well done!
DANNY’S MOM is a must-read for anyone connected with kids, LGBT issues, or bullying. It is a haunting and compelling story that challenges the reader to ask him or herself, “If I witnessed cruelty, what would I do? Would I be willing to risk my job to take a stand against a rigid system and a culture of homophobia?” Within the context of this story, these questions become nuanced and complex. DANNY’s MOM vividly and convincingly shows how trapped and powerless one can feel in the face of such a culture. However, it also offers the hope of healing from loss and finding one’s voice. This book sparks an important conversation about how to protect and empower kids and create a culture within schools and communities that is truly compassionate, accepting, and just. I highly recommend this book!
“Anti-bullying novelist” Elaine Wolf has done the seemingly impossible: she follows her terrific YA debut novel CAMP from earlier this year with an even more powerful anti-bullying novel, this time for adults. DANNY’S MOM is set in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of Columbine when many schools were only slowly beginning to realize the insidious causes and long-term effects of bullying, and those few professionals who took the issue seriously, such as DANNY’S MOM protagonist Beth Maller, risked their careers if they dared to speak out. Beth Maller is a devoted and compassionate high school guidance counselor recently returned to work following the tragic death of her only child, 17-year-old Danny, in a car crash. Beth’s grief is compounded by the blame she assigns to her husband, Joe, who, against Beth’s wishes, allowed Danny to drive on icy roads the night of his accident. Her eyes perhaps opened by grief, Beth takes up the fight against the homophobia, sexism, bullying, eating disorders, and “old boys’ network” that are rife among both students and staff at Meadow Brook High. Through her crusade Beth finds her authentic voice at last, but that discovery comes at a devastating cost to Beth’s personal and professional lives. While Wolf handles with grace and ease storylines touching on grief, loss, alienation, and emotional violence, the most powerful element of DANNY’S MOM is its achingly vivid portrait of the dissolution of a marriage. With measured, honest, and unflinching emotional detail that recalls the 1980 Oscar-winning movie Ordinary People, Wolf shows the reader how a supposedly strong marriage can die, slowly and painfully, leaving in its wake a grief as profound as any that would follow an actual physical death. CAMP and DANNY’S MOM signal the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary American fiction. What will this talented author do next? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi Wow, Wolf again writes a beautiful and heartbreaking story of loss, justice and redemption. Wolf, the anti-bullying author, tackles some very tough topics in this 5 stars novel that should be read by all. I feel that this novel with invoke change and encourage people to speak up against bullying and other injustices. I applaud Wolf and her ability to write such honest, moving and important work. Go out and get your copy today, read it and then share it with others!!!