Chain Gang Elementary

Rated 4.00/5 based on 7 reviews
A Tale of war between the PTA president and principal at Malliford School, aka Chain Gang Elementary-home to vast right-wing conspiracies, 3rd-grade gangsters, and bake sale embezzlers, where toxic childhood secrets fester, reformers go mad, and culture wars escalate into armed conflict. A One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest for schools. More

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About Jonathan Grant

Jonathan Grant is the award-winning co-author and editor of The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia (University of Georgia Press). Currently, he publishes, a news website covering educational issues. His first novel, Chain Gang Elementary, will be available soon.

Grant grew up on a Midwestern farm and graduated cum laude from the University of Georgia with a degree in English. He is a former newspaper reporter, editor, and bureau chief with The Macon Telegraph. He also served as a Georgia state government spokesman for six years.

He lives in suburban Atlanta with his wife and two children. Actively involved in community affairs, he has served as PTA president at a five-star Georgia School of Excellence, an elected member of his local school council, and as a soccer coach for twelve seasons.

Learn more about Jonathan Grant

Also by This Author


Katy Sozaeva reviewed on Aug. 1, 2012

This review can also be seen on my blog, Now is Gone.

Book Info: Genre: Satiric Literary Fiction Reading Level: Adult

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this eBook from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis: "In the first place, God created idiots. This was for practice. Then he created School Boards." – Mark Twain

After a murder at Bonaire Elementary, Richard and Anna Lee Gray seek a good school for their son Nick in a safe neighborhood. Their search leads them to Malliford, a "school of excellence." When redistricting sends scores of minority students to Malliford, iron-willed Principal Estelle Rutherford declares war on kids to raise test scores and save her reputation. Dissident parents revolt, electing Richard to head the Parent-Teacher Organization, and tensions explode. Welcome to Chain Gang Elementary, home to vast right-wing conspiracies, 3rd-grade gangsters, and bake-sale embezzlers – where toxic childhood secrets boil over, reformers go stark raving mad, and culture wars escalate into armed conflict. A tale of war that is poignant, timely, and brutally funny, "Chain Gang Elementary" is a "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" for the K-6 world.

First Sentence: In the twelfth year of his marriage, sixteen months before the shooting, twenty-one shopping days until Christmas, and eight hours before he reckoned for the tenth time that his wife didn't love him, Richard Gray met a woman who would have roughly the same effect on his life a tornado has on a trailer park.

My Thoughts: Mr. Grant offered this book to me in addition to his excellent "Brambleman", which I reviewed just a couple days ago. Since I like to read more than one book by an author, if possible, to be able to understand the full range of his or her skills, I was happy to oblige.

I found it interesting that Grant has the same basic family structure in this story – a stay-at-home father who is a writer, a mother who works long hours and shows her “devotion” to her husband in high levels of snarkiness, close father-son relationship, etc. However, I have no idea what state this is set in – the father of the piece is originally from Missouri, same as "Brambleman", but I have no basis for their location, other than it is not Missouri, but is farther south. For some reason that bothered me; I guess it doesn’t really matter, though.

I’ll tell you one thing; this book has made me very happy I do not have any children so I don’t have to deal with any of this type of nonsense. I’d probably be just like Ricky in this case – boiling mad pretty much constantly if I had to deal with the modern-day bureaucratic mess that has been made of our public schools (they were bad enough back in the day when I was attending). I have no idea if the small-town school I attended at a PTA (or PTO, like this one, for that matter), because my parents worked together to run a ranch, and since I rarely caused any sort of trouble (except for occasionally correcting teachers when they would give information incorrectly – which didn’t exactly endear me to most of them), most of the interaction with my parents was fairly cordial, but I can really see my dad acting like Ricky in these sorts of situations – only much more violent, of course. To watch the train wreck in progress by reading the book was bad enough; imaging myself in any of the roles was enough to raise my own blood pressure! At any rate, I have incredible sympathy for the good teachers left to try to slog their way through this stuff, and it has only raised my own respect for the terrific teachers I had when I was in grade school – well, mostly. Like all people, I had a few duds, but I will be eternally grateful to them for doing their best to keep us focused and challenged. Especially Mrs. Johannes, our third-grade teacher, who had us again in fifth grade and basically had to start over when our fourth-grade teacher wasn’t able to handle us (there were a high number of very intelligent kids in my class), and dear Mr. Capp (now deceased), who had my class in sixth grade, straight out of college, and whom we about drove mad. My hat’s off to anyone willing to do this, and dedicate themselves to the task, like the undervalued Mrs. Little in this story.

I’m not sure why, but the last 100 pages of this book really dragged for me, which is ironic considering how much happens during that section. It’s very fast-paced, but it didn’t hold my interest. I really cannot evaluate why – it’s written well enough, with only a few misused, missing or extra words, there’s no lag with the characters and, in fact, we learn a lot during this section, but I had to really push myself to finish the book. Maybe it is just because I don’t have children and part of the tension here is over issues of having children, so I just didn’t connect with it. At any rate, don’t let that stop you from checking this book out, especially if you have younger children. The characters are done well, the writing is smooth and flows along nicely, and the plotting is excellent, with lots of twists and turns and surprises – especially at the end.
(reviewed 4 months after purchase)
angel jennifer reviewed on July 22, 2012

I really liked this well-written book. it made me laugh with the main character's sarcastic wit at other;s expense usually. it is a great read for parents dealing with school systems these days, and especially resonates with some political issues of our time. Although, like the other reviewers mentioned, i did find it slow in parts, I would recommend this book to others as a funny and well told story
(reviewed 29 days after purchase)
Neil Rand reviewed on June 6, 2012

I was not really expecting this type of book when I started reading it. I did like the main character for the most part and it was easy to understand where he was coming from. I did have a difficult time keeping interested into the book because it mostly revolves around the politics of the school. I will have to say that the book did have a fast and interesting ending that I really did enjoy.
(reviewed 34 days after purchase)
Liza Butler reviewed on June 4, 2012

I do not think I will ever join a PTO after reading this novel! The politics involved, the backstabbing, the affairs, the arrests and the children caught in the middle. Oh, did I forget the mild racism?

I bet this type of thing goes on almost all the PTOs at schools where it is the pinnacle of excellence in comparison to other schools in its district.

Sometimes you have to move away... Awesome book! Would recommend.
(reviewed 32 days after purchase)
Heather Wilkinson reviewed on May 16, 2012

There was a lot of similarities in Chain Gang Elementary that were in Brambleman (ie. stay-at-home dad, writer, hateful wife, etc). This book was also a little too long and could have been shortened up a few chapters. It was a good story and very true even though it was fiction.

My two sons go to a public elementary school that is going to be overcrowded this year while the other schools in the district are not. I asked one of the teachers why students were not turned away to schools in their neighborhood (our city has open enrollment) and she didn't know.

When my older son started school I was in PTO. I really did believe in their ideals so I don't go anymore. I think kids should be taught about giving rather than if you give you will win this.

I would recommend this to my friends.
(reviewed 15 days after purchase)
jane anne reviewed on March 17, 2012

The Chaingang Elementary By Jonathan Grant


When Richard Gray moves his family to a new town he finds himself thrown in at the deep end as PTO president at his sons new school. Malliford is a ‘school of excellence’ but with redistricting the school is forced into taking less fortunate kids from the ‘apartments’ causing all kinds unrest amongst the parents and the staff who worry the test scores will suffer as a result. After witnessing some very disturbing incidents where staff were unnecessarily cruel to the new students Richard makes it his business to try and stop it, but in doing so he just makes himself and his son targets.

‘The Chaingang Elementary’ is not a quick read but it is a compelling one. I thought it was going to be solely about a parent teacher organisation but it was more than that. We were given insight into Richards troubled childhood and followed him through some very difficult times in his failing marriage. The story and the characters were more in-depth than I had expected. This was Richards story, and his character changed from humorous to frustrated to serious as the plot progressed and thickened.

Although I enjoyed Jonathan Grants writing style, I felt some of the story line was less than believable. The treatment of the students by some members of staff was horrific and the blatant disregard for the children’s safety, happiness and well-being would not happen in western society. That said I was still drawn into the story and needed to know what happened next!

This is a well written book with realistic characters and natural dialogue, there was some waffle that elongated the story and slowed the pace in parts but on the whole the tale moved along at a steady pace holding the readers attention to the last page and I enjoyed it.

Copy supplied for review. Thank you
(reviewed 9 days after purchase)
Indie Books List reviewed on Feb. 5, 2012

This review originally appeared at Indie Books List, where "Chain Gang Elementary" was chosen as "Book of the Month" for the month of January, 2012.

What can I say about Richard Gray? He’s a flawed, kind, well-meaning man who calls meetings to order with the “rap-tap-tap” of a Duncan yo-yo. As the protagonist in Jonathan Grant’s “Chain Gang Elementary”, he’s pitch perfect. Gray possesses a conflicted social conscience, a sharp tongue, and has the cojones to be an unapologetic, stay at home father.

He’s a Southern male that isn’t a simpleton, a redneck, or a dandy…I mean…Charlestonian.
When Richard is drafted to be head of the Parent Teacher Organization at Malliford Elementary, he is aware that his presidency will face obstacles. The aging Miz Rutherford is at once Principal, non-benevolent dictator, and Nurse Ratched to the children and parents who inhabit Malliford. She’s not fond of Gray’s impudent questions, or the changes he would make in student life.

Rutherford is intent on making her school a “five-star school of excellence”. The only people standing in the way are Richard Gray, agent provocateur Rita Malloy, and the academic pariahs that inhabit the Chantilly Arms apartment complex. Of course, the school isn’t racist for wanting to reassign them to another school. It’s strictly an issue of test scores and property values.

This is where the war begins. This war will be won not through frontal assaults, but from good old-fashioned skulduggery and passive-aggressive behavior. This book is the show “Desperate Housewives” wishes it could be, and has the scathing social satire “Suburgatory” pretends to provide.

Gray’s personal life is hopelessly endangered by his success as PTO President, with his son Nicholas providing an unbiased look at the effects of his professional achievements. Richard’s frosty wife, Anna Lee is alternately unimpressed with, and angry about Richard’s “accomplishments”.

Her emotional indifference creates a situation ripe for extramarital excursions. These aren’t too difficult to initiate when you are a powerful, stay-at-home dad, surrounded by bored housewives. The question Gray finds himself asking is “Will it be worth it?”

The answer is “Yes.”, but only in response to the question “Should I read this book?” Chain Gang Elementary has a massive cast of characters that are all fully developed, with sub-plots that weave in and out of the main storyline gracefully. It’s rare to look at a book and say “This was crafted.” This book combines loving attention to detail, page-turning tension, with a wry humor that stops short of meanness.

This is a long read. A lesser story would make the length of ”Chain Gang” unbearable. As things stand, it’s a satisfying experience, worth far more than the price of admission.
Buy it already.
(reviewed 24 days after purchase)

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