The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.
The Ancient Nine by Ian Smith is based on his time as a Harvard student in the 1980s. Readers might think of a fraternity, where male students rush to join, in this case it is called “punched.” As with fraternities there is hazing, sexism, and underage drinking. But these “final clubs” are not fraternities but are really secret societies that have been in existence since the 1700s, with many of the rules of its members very archaic.
Harvard University conjures up images of a very prestigious and exclusive school whose acceptance rate is only 5.2% of its applicants. Within the surrounding million dollar mansions are privileged all male clubs. Smith told how pressure is put on these clubs to integrate. They have allowed token blacks, Jews, and Hispanics, but not women. Because these groups are not associated with the University it claims its hands are tied. What they have done is to prohibit any student who has participated in these clubs from holding leadership positions in student government, refusing them any recommendations for scholarships, and not permitting them to be a captain on any varsity team. Unfortunately, the faculty and alumni are pushing back saying it is a violation of free association rights.
The character Spenser Collins is actually the fictional personality of Smith, while his friend Dalton Winthrop is a compilation of people that he knew at Harvard. As in the book, he recounts how he received an invitation while a sophomore that was slipped under his door. Only ten to twenty students are chosen out of an original invitation to 250 students. Founded in the nineteenth the Delphic Club has had titans of industry, Hollywood legends, heads of state, and power brokers among its members. It is a who’s who with members from the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, and Kennedys.
Smith explained, “Spenser is me. I was raised by a single mom, from a working-class family, pre-med, and played basketball. I never heard of the Delphic Club, but found out that it was more of a microcosm of a country club. Members are able to have lifelong interactions and engagements. Members get access to some of the most powerful people in this country, are a part of the inner circle, and are able to network.”
The fictional part comes into play after Spenser in researching the club’s past, learns that a Harvard student, Erasmus Abbott, vanished in 1927 after attempting to break into the Delphic Club. Spenser decides to investigate, and the path to the truth, of course, proves perilous. A club within a club is the Ancient Nine. It is even more secretive, this shadowy group of alums whose identities are unknown and whose power is absolute. The more the friends investigate, the more questions they unearth, tangling the story of the club, the disappearance, and the Ancient Nine, until they realize their own lives are in danger.
Considering that the book details graphic scenes of what should be considered sexual abuse it is a surprise that someone has not come out against these men who appear to have had a MeToo Movement moment. A scene in the book, at the end of an offsite ritual, pledgers are presented with a group of beautiful women, wearing nothing but high heels, who stand waiting to “entertain” them. Smith noted, “I think the MeToo Movement focused on guys who used their power to suppress and manipulate women. They abused their power and harassed women. They should be taken down. But what happened in the Clubs are just bad relationships and guys doing some bad things, which has happened for 1000’s of years. I would not shut the door on a woman coming out and saying ‘I was at this party and this happened to me.’”
Harvard and Cambridge are characters in the book. “I wanted to write how the location plays an important role. Harvard has its own brand and own assumptions people make about it. There are images, visions, and beliefs. I had the characters interact with the campus and its surroundings. I purposely sprinkled some history of the University as readers get to know this character, Harvard.”
What Smith wants readers to get out of it, “These are independent clubs with their own land, own mansions, and is not part of the University. The problem is the University does not own these clubs so there is no official link with it. I hope people think about what goes on behind closed doors. The time has come for these clubs to be open and the exclusion should be eradicated.”