Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley
Novel: Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley | Goodreads
Release Date: September 9, 2014
Publisher: Harper Teen
Sam McKenna’s never turned down a dare. And she’s not going to start with the last one her brother gave her before he died.
So Sam joins the first-ever class of girls at the prestigious Denmark Military Academy. She’s expecting push-ups and long runs, rope climbing and mud-crawling. As a military brat, she can handle an obstacle course just as well as the boys. She’s even expecting the hostility she gets from some of the cadets who don’t think girls belong there. What she’s not expecting is her fiery attraction to her drill sergeant. But dating is strictly forbidden and Sam won’t risk her future, or the dare, on something so petty…no matter how much she wants him.
As Sam struggles to prove herself, she discovers that some of the boys don’t just want her gone—they will stop at nothing to drive her out. When their petty threats turn to brutal hazing, bleeding into every corner of her life, she realizes they are not acting alone. A decades-old secret society is alive and active… and determined to force her out.
At any cost.
Now time’s running short. Sam must decide who she can trust…and choosing the wrong person could have deadly consequences.
Rites of Passage was a hard book to read, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It was mentally exhausting to read – both because of the intense mental anguish Sam was exposed to on a daily basis and her grueling physical challenges.
The blurb covers it well, but the book boils down to this: despite growing up in a military family, nobody expected Sam McKenna to do the impossible, and be one of the first girls at the prestigious all-boys military academy that her brothers both attended. After her older brother Amos killed himself, she took his final dare and enrolled. While her family hesitatingly supported her – give or take a brother – she not only took on the strenuous challenge of military school but the jeering, danger, and hazing that came with being the only girl. Aside from her butch classmates, alumni and many of the public weren’t thrilled about her endeavor into the DMA – Denmark Military Academy. She’s pushed to the limit, then pushed further. But when an old society gets involved, her world gets a whole lot more dangerous.
Sam was a strong character, and not only because of her situation; it wasn’t because she was a military brat, or she could do hundreds of push-ups, but because she still showed some vulnerability. I’ve written previously about how, in YA, we tend to immediately regard the traditionally, physically-strong dystopian heroines as superior to the emotional contemporary girls, but I never felt a gap between them with Sam. She embodied both aspects beautifully, in a remarkably human way.
I think that without that sensitivity, without the glimmer of superficiality and presence, she could have easily been degraded to just another strong-female-character without any substance. She still got nervous when she saw a boy she liked and she still dealt with the day-to-day issues of any teen protagonist. I liked Sam; I immediately gravitated towards her and she carried the story well. Even the way she reacted to the ways her comrades treated her – the awful bullying, the torment – was strong and admirable. I could never have done a fraction of the things that she did, and she is truly a book character whom readers can idolize.
Supporting characters did a great job of keeping the plot focused, but with enough leeway to always feel fresh. The other girls enrolled in the DMA for the first time ranged – from the sniveling girl who stayed tucked away in the infirmary to the track star that Sam begrudgingly befriended, there was a balance between sticking together through the tough times and not being able to trust anybody. That same balance extended to her other encounters, from boys to drill sergeants to priests. Through it all, she was a leader, a quality apparent even in Sam’s weakest moments.
Being plunged into the military-school aspect of Rites of Passage, it’s an entirely different world. It has its own lingo, traditions, challenges. Joy N. Hensley – a military-school graduate herself – knew the ins-and-outs of the system but, more valuably, was able to convey that vernacular in a way that made sense to the reader. She effortlessly wove vocabulary and ideals into a story that made them feel natural while still maintaining the fear of the landscape that Sam navigated. As someone who experienced military school herself, she was able to imbue the details with a familiarity that made it much easier to connect.
What makes it undeniably successful is primarily that Hensley doesn’t simplify it or water it down. Sam’s a character that’s been exposed to the military lifestyle for her entire life, and she knows the ropes while still enduring the horror herself as a newbie. But there are other aspects to the plot that are equally engrossing and create a full-fledged experience of a book. It doesn’t narrow the focus, but still feels clean.
I’ll be honest – I was not expecting the breadth and depth of the plot that Rites of Passage provided. This is a book that I pulled out on the metro, at the dinner table, whenever I could steal a second away because it was absorbing. It was vibrant, in an extremely specific way that appealed to me. I wasn’t expecting the secret society or the way the romance pulled me in. Quite frankly, I was expecting a novel that focused purely on the shock of landing in a military school.
Considering that, I wasn’t expecting the romance to be as fantastic as it was! Wow, Joy N. Hensley, wow. Her breathless description of Sam’s love interest – Stamm, loving the rhyme – and development of their relationship through the ups and downs deserves a round of applause. I am in awe. Joy N. Hensley did a great job with family as well, navigating the complexity of the dynamic as well as unique challenges that come with having active members of the military. There was a tenderness there, some fear, heightened emotions that were gripping.
The pacing was positively brilliant. There was never a moment that sagged – even an act as simple as visiting a comrade in the infirmary was charged with clarity and anxiety. Throughout the high-stakes, tense environment, there was still a solid feel to it that made it enjoyable. It wasn’t a book that stressed me out – no matter how emotionally involved I got in Sam’s dilemmas. There was always something going on, mimicking the military school environment well because they never got a break. Even then, the tension built to a stunning climax. Several reviewers have pointed out that the ending was rather abrupt but I liked it, and thought the plot threads tied up rather well.
I love love loved Rites of Passage. It was fierce, satisfying, and emotionally exhausting. It left me wondering about strength, and rooting for Sam. From the warm depictions of her family, the well-developed relationships, and the magnificent pacing, I really enjoyed all the various aspects of the book. I’m definitely going to keep my eye on Joy N. Hensley!