Call it a mystery with a moral but first-time novelist John DeFrank delivers both with stunning success in Condemned to Freedom, set in a public school in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It should be noted that in this case Freedom is both the name of the fictional town and county the book takes place in as well as an allegorical reference to the responsibility that goes with the state of being.
It is a milieu DeFrank knows well, having spent three decades plus as a teacher/counselor/administrator in the Lebanon County school system in the keystone state. Actually, a public school is a perfect place to find heroes, villains and intrigue.
The school’s mission draws the idealists. The school’s budget draws the shadier characters.
DeFrank gives us plenty of both. When a school superintendent, or CEO, is found dead by a hand or hands other than his own, there are, as DeFrank shows us, no shortage of suspects but the clues unearthed by the local and state police point to one—an iconoclastic football coach turned guidance counselor named Dr. Brian Randori.
“His book, Condemned to Freedom exemplifies the good fight he has always fought and never tired of, yet within it bleeds perhaps a bit of the exasperation I know he feels at those in charge and of the status quo in education,” Nancy A. Avolese, former Pennsylvania State Coordinator for Alternative Education writes in the foreword. “The very special education laws that protect the weak and needy sometimes cover for the corrupt and immoral.”
“Condemned to Freedom is a murder mystery but interwoven within these pages is John’s own ideology of personal responsibility and the mission we must all share in living as role models for our youth and for our own souls.” Although I do not know this lady and may not agree with her on much, I do affirm all of the above comments.
Condemned to Freedom is well-constructed and paced with skillfully developed characters. Far too many writers throw everything about either the plot or the cast down all at once, stopping the narrative cold, a temperature Condemned to Freedom never reaches.
If you always loved reading mysteries but can hardly ever find any good new ones, give this one a chance. Also, DeFrank sticks to the realm of the plausible, where too many writers don’t. Googling the phrase “high school principals murdered” brings up more than five million ghastly entries.
Moreover, the increase in drugs and crime—both of which figure prominently in the novel—in the little valley that Freedom Country stands in for has gone up exponentially over the past three decades, even as the population went down. As well, in the old days, when a grizzly murder did occur there, you invariably knew who did it nearly as soon as it happened, which was about when the arrest was made, in stark contrast to the more drawn out investigations that more recent homicides there lead to.
DeFrank’s points about honor and responsibility, of course, are well taken, especially at a time when adolescence among public figures from across the political spectrum seems to segue right into and often overlaps middle-age. His reminder of the ideals that we should strive for is particularly refreshing to those of us who toil down here on the Potomac in the home of the “mistakes were made” passive voice that cuts across party lines.
Full Disclosure: I have known the author for 35 years, although I never knew that he had a talent for writing fiction. He was our high school guidance counselor and football coach and, I can testify, did indeed practice what he preaches. As the saying goes, he talks the talk and walks the walk.
He is something of an education pioneer, in the most positive way in which you can use the term. In the 1970s at our little high school he would give a lecture on the dangers of drugs to students and parents, years before the DARE program started.
I should note that there were up to a half a dozen of us who felt compelled to argue politics with him at lunch every day and he would patiently do so until the bell rang. Although it was in his power to do as much, he never pulled rank on us and closed off discussion.
He is a true liberal in the best sense of the word.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.