Hardcover, 336 pages
Published April 8th 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
“I wanted to call her a bitch. I almost did. But I couldn’t get the word out. I started wondering whether that’d be sexist, and then I started thinking about how many thoughts could squeeze into the tiniest pause between words, and then I started thinking that now I was thinking about my thoughts, and also thinking about the fact that I was thinking about my thoughts, and how that could go on forever, as if my first thought had been placed between two mirrors and now there was an infinite, recursive series of thoughts. And then I thought about how everyone else probably thought about thoughts too, and how there were so many thoughts out there, an oppressive consciousness ladled over the globe like a thick, congealing sauce.”
The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is not a coming of age story as much as it is a ride in the heads of three very smart teenagers who make (often misguided) attempts to reclaim what has been stolen from them by the adults around them. The novel is also Kate Hattemer’s debut into the world of children’s literature.
Ethan and his friends, Jackson, Luke and Elizabeth, attend Selwyn Academy, a highbrow school dedicated to the arts. Jackson likes school; he has good friends and an unattainable girl he crushes on. Then things begin to fall apart. The catalyst for all this falling apart is For Arts Sake, a reality tv show that is being filmed at Selwyn Academy. Luke, Ethan’s best friend, is against the TV show and what it stands for so he decides to write a long poem (like Ezra Pound did) to protest against the exploitation of their school and student lives by this tv show. However, he falls for the allure of fame and ends up a contestant on the show leaving Ethan, Elizabeth and Jackson hanging. Also starring a pet gerbil and triplet sisters.
The novel is fun, irreverent and very cheeky. The story is told from Ethan’s perspective and though he is not an unreliable narrator entirely, he is prone to exaggeration and all the other delicious adolescent melodrama. I loved the way friendship is portrayed in the novel; Hattemer gives it close attention but manages to make the dynamics subtle enough that the reader has the pleasure of reading between the lines. Ethan’s relationships both platonic and otherwise are carefully explored and Ethan is able to reflect somewhat on the decisions he makes intentionally and even those he makes unintentionally. I really loved how subtle the romance is. Hattemer avoids melodrama when it would have been very easy to fall prey to it. Justifiably too.
While the school life described in the novel is somewhat ideal, the discourse on adult exploitation of teenage lives, bodies and dreams to make money is an important one. The show anchor is somewhat of a caricature but she manages to capture how in the pursuit to entertain things become cheapened. The narrative on Ezra Pound is just as important and I felt that the mention of Pound’s words as he looked back on his life, and the reiteration of it is important. Pound says, “I should have been able to do better.” Ethan and his friends do not want to look back and regret and it is Pound’s words that spur them on to try to make a difference.
I enjoyed this book. My major complaint would have been the anticlimactic nature of the reunion between the friends. I wanted some screaming and passionate reviling where Luke was concerned but I am able to get over that lack. The book is intelligent and witty and needs a particular mood to read it. So if you find yourself craving something like Dead Poets Society maybe give this one a try.