Back to School: 7 Fictional Boarding Schools Based on Real Academies
What happens when you throw teenagers into dorms and stir together hormones, ambition, and competition? Good fiction — and, for some high schoolers, real life. Here are 8 great novels set at boarding schools, and the actual schools that inspired their settings.
Auburn Academy of 'The Virgins'
Pamela Erens describes the passion of Aviva and Seung, two students at Auburn Academy, with details so precise and faithful to the teenage mind, you'll remember fully the pangs of being 16. Auburn, speculated to be based Erens's alma mater, the intense Phillips Exeter Academy, is a fitting backdrop to their equally high-octane relationship.
Ault School of 'Prep'
Curtis Sittenfeld's 2005 novel is also a coming-of-age story in which characters learn big things about themselves from sexual experimentation. The protagonist, Lee, is a character so likable and so believably human that she becomes someone with whom you'll want to eat Cheetos and dish about your feelings. Sittenfeld went to Groton School, and it's widely speculated that Ault is based on her alma mater.
Devon of 'A Separate Peace'
Gene and Finny! Was there ever a more lovable pair of fictional teenage boys? Admission: Years removed from high school English, my lines between A Separate Peace and The Dead Poets Society blur as both take place in New England autumnal all-male boarding schools, and both end in deaths. I suppose this just goes to show: the boarding school (and perhaps Philips Exeter specifically?) is a perfect backdrop for a dramatic tale of beautifully tragic friendship.
Gravesend Academy of 'A Prayer for Owen Meany'
In John Irving's mightily popular novel, the name of the novel's protagonist, John Wheelwright, comes from the name of the man who founded the town of Exeter. John and his friend — the titlular Owen Meany — are students at Gravesend, which is speculated to be a veiled fictional version of (again) Exeter.
Steering School of 'The World According to Garp'
Another John Irving novel set at a school based on Exeter! He had so much to go on. In Garp, the titular character is an illegitimate child born to the nurse at Steering School. He grows up at the school and eventually enrolls. Irving had a lot to say about what it's like to mature at boarding school.
Pencey Prep of 'Catcher in the Rye'
A lot of details from Salinger's life carry over into his work: he was a veteran, and so was Seymour Glass; he learned to "pursue perfection on his own terms," and so did Franny Glass; he was kicked out of a high school, and so was Holden Caulfield. But where Salinger ended up — Valley Forge Academy — is believed to be the inspiration for the school Caulfield fled: Pencey Prep. And Caulfield was immersed in the network of boarding school competition — he also attended fictional Whooton and Elkton Hills, and one of his friends went to real-life Choate.
Unnamed School of 'Old School'
2003's Old School is a story about finding oneself — but more importantly about the overwhelming and devastating desire to achieve artistic greatness. Appearances from Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway certainly help the quest. It's rumored that Tobias Wolff's alma mater, Pottstown, Penn.'s The Hill School, provides the setting for the unnamed northeastern school in the story. The dining room of the institution is depicted on the cover, after all. But, you know, we'll keep guessing if you will.