The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

The Chalk Artist first reads like a love story as Poor Boy and Rich Girl meet and fall in love, but Allegra Goodman has a bigger message. It is the real world versus the virtual world in this story. What are the roles of teachers and artists in the modern world? In the old stories and fairy tales, magic can grant wishes and create happy narratives, but it can turn menacing. In this modern story, technology takes on the role of magic. It is the real world versus the virtual world as the characters in the novel battle the technology that can destroy them. To find happiness, the characters must find balance in their lives and make connections to each other.

Think Erich Segal’s Love Story with the roles of rich boy and poor girl reversed. Nina Lazare is a rich Harvard graduate struggling through her first year teaching high school English to at-risk youth, and she is dedicated and focused in her work. She is very serious and a bit prim. Collin James is a talented art school drop-out whose preferred medium is chalk, “because you can do so much with dust.”

Even though both were raised by single parents and the two grew up two miles apart, they are from totally different worlds. They meet at a Grendel’s Bar and Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nina’s dad is the rich creator of a massive multiplayer video game company called Arkadia. She does not need to work. Collin grew up in a row house in a creative environment with a loving mom, who is a dedicated teacher. Part-time actor, artist, waiter, and bicycle repairman, Collin does need to work, but he likes his freedom, so he can create. Both characters have taken their world views to the extreme.

Nina and Collin learn from each other. Their first jobs in the adult world are challenging. Teaching is hard for Nina, who cannot keep her students’ attention; the students feel her fear and take over. How can you fight the addictive quality of cell phones and the virtual world of Arkadia’s EverWhen? She is a bit of a do-gooder as she takes on one student, Aiden, who is addicted to her father’s game, at the expense of the other students in her class. She wants her students to connect with literature, but she needs Collin’s help:

“You’re silly.”
He nodded.
With a hint of regret, she confessed, “I’m not.”
He took her arm. “I can help you with that.”

Collin charms, delights, and then impresses Nina—and her students. Nina also wants to help Collin succeed, but she knows getting him a job at Arkadia is problematic. Her father and uncle are like powerful wizards who can suck the magic out of him. When Collin does join the team at Arkadia, it tests his relationship with Nina as he gets swallowed by the gaming culture. Nina can’t let go and likes order, and Collin lets loose and lives in chaos.
Goodman’s talent with words shines as she describes both the addictive virtual world of “qwesting,” that Nina’s student Aiden cannot live without, and the real classroom scenes as she tries to instill a love of literature in her students. The author contrasts Collin’s and Nina’s magical snow day in the real world with Aiden’s day fighting mythical creatures in the fantasy world of  EverWhen, which explodes like fireworks from a new gaming system called the BoX.

There are a lot of growing pains in The Chalk Artist. If you enjoy this novel, which pays homage to teachers, try the classic To Sir, With Love, or slip into a virtual world with Ready Player One. Find out about chalk painting in The Street Art Book.