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Nonfiction in Brief

CASTAWAYS The Penikese Island Experiment by George Cadwalader (Chelsea Green Publishing: Chelsea, Vt.: $17.95)

March 06, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

"This is the story of an experiment that would appear to have failed." So begins the author's extraordinary tale of establishing a rehabilitation center for hard-core juvenile delinquents on an island off the Massachusetts coast. In most everyone else's estimation, George Cadwalader's Outward-Bound-type program has been a remarkable success in its 15 years. Reporters have hailed his "caring staff" and the students' "earnest talk" of "turning themselves around," liberal social scientists have praised the program for forcing students to be responsible (on the isolated island, they must chop wood for fire, harvest vegetables for food). Cadwalader, however, "utterly uninterested in presenting himself as God's gift to hurt," as Robert Coles writes in the introduction, isn't distracted from the cold, hard facts: Of the first 106 boys who had come to Penikese, only 16 had " 'turned themselves around'. . . . The other 90 had gone on to lives destructive in varying degrees to themselves and others."

A former Marine captain whose duty in Vietnam was ended by a land mine, Cadwalader eventually concludes that the odds are worthwhile: "Sixteen percent is less discouraging a figure when considered against what those relatively few successes would otherwise have cost society in dollars and misery if the investment were not made." But he's still unable to subscribe to rosy, Rousseauist views of human nature: "I cannot avoid the conclusion that the world would have been a better place if most of the kids I grew to like at Penikese had never been born." What's most extraordinary about "Castaways" is that these are not the words of a hardened bureaucrat. Cadwalader invites some of the boys to his home and many of the hardened offenders consider him a confidant. And his 10th chapter, semi-fictionalized in a style comparable to Faulkner's, travels more deeply into a boy's troubled mind than many of our best novels.

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