39 pages 1 hour read

Laurie Halse Anderson


Fiction | Novel | YA

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Summary and Study Guide


Catalyst, by YA author Laurie Halse Anderson, investigates the emotional and psychological profile of high-achieving high school students. These model adolescents excel in the classroom and athletics, often at the expense of their personal and emotional development.

Catalyst was published in 2002 and shortlisted for numerous YA awards. It is part of Anderson’s series set in fictional Merryweather High School in Syracuse, New York. The novel introduces Kate Malone, a high school senior determined to attend MIT. In addition to her schoolwork and extracurricular activities, Kate carries the responsibility of running her family’s household, particularly helping with her younger brother. This coming-of-age novel explores how to handle death, the dynamics of friendship, the importance of community, and the complex process of discovering one’s identity.

This study guide uses the 2019 Penguin paperback edition for its quotes and citations.

Content Warning: The guide and novel discuss child death and domestic abuse.

Plot Summary

It is the spring of Kate Malone’s senior year. A straight-A student and champion long-distance runner, Kate is committed to success. However, she sometimes feels as if there is a “Bad Kate” inside her who wants to rebel and live recklessly. She is something of a loner and loves to run, finding in exhausting night runs an escape from the pressures of daily life. Her only goal is admission to MIT, her late mother’s alma mater; she is so confident of being accepted that it is the only school to which she applied. Her boyfriend, Mitch, already accepted at Harvard, drifts through his studies, vaguely thinking of majoring in history.

Kate is the daughter of a minister. Her mother died when she was five, and since then, she has shouldered the responsibility for running the house, including tending to her 14-year-old brother, Toby, who struggles with asthma. Sometimes her schedule is overwhelming; Kate’s father is gone long hours tending to his congregation’s crises. Kate disciplines herself and attends to her responsibilities for the sake of her family.

When MIT rejects Kate, she panics, uncertain what to do next. Then the Litch family, who are part of her father’s congregation, suffers a catastrophic house fire. Kate’s father agrees to take in the two children, a feisty two-year old named Mikey and his sullen older sister, Teri. Teri Litch has long been Kate’s nemesis in school, a bully who delighted in making Kate’s life miserable in elementary school.

The adjustment is difficult for Kate. She does not want the disruptive, moody Teri or her toddler brother in her home. She suspects that Teri is stealing from her, particularly a beautiful watch of her mother’s.

Gradually, Teri opens up about her difficult homelife, revealing that her abusive father beats her mother. As a result of these beatings, Teri’s mother has brain damage and relies on special care from one of the parish’s members. As Kate becomes more engrossed in her responsibilities, Mitch begins to find her selfish and shallow—as well as possibly unfaithful. At the same time, Kate finds herself sympathizing with Teri. A group from the school goes to Teri’s house that is under renovation. Mikey loves his new home so much that he puts his handprints on the wall in yellow paint. He then wanders off from the impromptu party. In a tragic accident, he electrocutes himself and dies. Teri is devastated. As the ambulance takes Mikey away, she reveals that he was in fact her son, not her brother.

After the funeral, Teri struggles and blames herself for her son’s death. She destroys room after room of her house by swinging a sledgehammer, only leaving the section of the wall with Mikey’s tiny handprint. Teri stays alone in the house night after night. Kate cannot convince Teri to stop destroying her home; because Teri is over 18, her actions are not illegal. Mitch sees the boy’s death as a reminder that it is time for him to grow up and get serious. He enrolls in Harvard’s international economics department.

Meanwhile, Kate drifts. When her friends from school take Kate to a diner to cheer her up, they find Teri working there as a server. Mitch treats her with snarky disrespect and Teri flares up at him and walks out. Mitch’s insensitivity appalls Kate. More than ever, she is determined to help Teri. She visits Teri in Teri’s abandoned house. She and Teri tearfully conclude that Mikey’s death was an accident and that no one was to blame. Kate tells Teri that she is taking a gap year and wants to help Teri complete the renovations on her house.