Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Prep school novel meets genre's high standards

  • Print

Amber Dermont, a professor of creative writing in Decatur, Ga., and a graduate of the respected Iowa Writers' Workshop, sets her first novel in fertile territory -- a New England prep school. Some fine American novels have dealt with prep-school life, and Dermont's meets the high standard they set.

Consider the elite group her novel joins: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951); A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (1960); A Good School, by Richard Yates (1978); Old School, by Tobias Wolff (2003).

All four of these feature young male protagonists, three of them telling their own stories in the first person. Dermont could have gone with a female narrator, as did another woman writer, Curtis Sittenfeld, with her funny and insightful first novel about a girls' school, Prep (2005). But Dermont dares to give us a male first-person narrator, Jason Prosper, and all his observations and thoughts ring true.

The Starboard Sea presents Jason's year at Bellingham Academy on the Massachusetts coast. He's had to go there after being "banished" from the more highly rated Kensington Prep, because of a less-than-stellar performance profoundly affected by the suicide of his best friend Cal. The story begins in fall, 1987 -- before ubiquitous cellphones and Facebook -- and Jason's rich New York father has paved the way for his son by funding two new dorms at Bellingham.

Jason is an articulate 18-year-old, somewhat jaded by his family's wealth and rather sophisticated in his views of innocence and the second chances one gets in life. As a narrator, he is more reserved than Salinger's Holden, more like Knowles' Gene, but he has his own foibles.

Some of his observations resonate with world-weariness, as in: "It was that point in the evening when everyone either wants to have sex or wants to break something."

Jason is only one of a large cast of fully realized characters; in fact, it is remarkable how wide a variety of people come to life through Jason's eyes: parents, teachers, school administrators, girls (Bellingham has been co-ed for four years) and a gang of memorable guys.

Jason is especially adept at sailing and is expected to be part of the Bellingham team. He opts out at first, recalling his success with Cal; his reminiscences and eventual involvement allow Dermont to educate the reader on the finer points of the sport:

"'It's the waves we need to worry about, not the winds,' [Cal would] always say, and he was right. Winds could knock a boat around, but a wave could seize a ship and blast her open. I knew how to read the wind, but Cal was an expert at appraising the waves."

Jason even points out the great number of everyday clichés that come from sailing, such as "give a wide berth," "above-board," "high and dry," "know the ropes," "on an even keel," and "three sheets to the wind."

Into Jason's life comes an enigmatic young woman named Aidan. Intrigued by her from the start, he begins to fall for her, but any kind of relationship is made difficult partly by school policies but mostly by the parties and pranks that prevail all around them.

When, at mid-novel, a storm hits the region and Aidan drowns, Jason must face his own culpability in another loss of someone close to him.

The Starboard Sea is an absorbing novel about growing up, the impressive debut of a major writing talent.

Winnipeg writer Dave Williamson's new novel, Dating, will be published in April by Turnstone Press.

The Starboard Sea

By Amber Dermont

Raincoast Books, 310 pages, $29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 J10

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Key of Bart - Four Little Games

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • STDUP ‚Äì Beautiful West End  begins it's summer of bloom with boulevard s, front yards  and even back lane gardens ,  coming alive with flowers , daisies and poppies  dress up a backyard lane on Camden St near Wolseley Ave  KEN GIGLIOTTI  / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  /  June 26 2012

View More Gallery Photos


Did you watch the Bruce Jenner interview?

View Results

Ads by Google