“Brutal” by Michael Harmon – Book Review

book review

harmonbrutalStrong Heroine Confronts Bullying in Young Adult Novel That Adults Should Read

In most discussions about bullying, why do we seem more comfortable talking about the victim’s actions, feelings and behaviors and less willing to go after the perpetrators and hold them accountable? If we want to stop bullying, shouldn’t we stop the bully?

Fighting for Fairness
That question is the engine that propels Brutal , and author Michael Harmon doesn’t strike a false note in creating a convincing 16-year-old heroine hell-bent on fighting all that’s unfair. Best of all, Harmon’s strong-willed, intelligent protagonist is no sweet-faced goody goody; she’s an angry and flawed teenager who feels the sting of parental rejection and learns throughout the course of the novel to open up and trust again.

But trust is the last thing on her mind when Poe Holly arrives as the new girl in town after her mother, an emotionally distant surgeon, heads to a jungle village to dispense medical care to “world citizens” and dumps Poe on the doorstep of someone she doesn’t know and hasn’t seen in 15 years — her father.

The Brutality of Bullying
Her new home, a wine-country tourist hot spot called Benders Hollow, is a far cry from Los Angeles where Poe sang in a rock band and was thrown out of private schools because of her fiercely independent streak. Poe’s punk clothes and in-your-face attitude are at odds with nearly all of her classmates at Bender High School except for another nihilistic rocker, Theo, who just happens to be the mayor’s son, and a strange, gawky kid named Velveeta who evokes unexpected empathy in Poe.

It’s Velveeta’s brutal treatment at the hands of can’t-touch-me football star Colby Morris that makes Poe stand up to the establishment, which includes not only her peers but the school administrators as well. Complicating matters is the fact that the high school guidance counselor just happens to be her father, a man she’s tentatively trying to forge a relationship with.

Giving ‘Losers’ a Voice
Poe doesn’t have all the answers, and several times she’s proven wrong in her assessment of others who deserve more credit than she’s willing to give them. But the presence of a strong, vocal, not easily intimidated female who has the courage to question the inconsistencies of authority — and point out the inequities between the haves and the have-nots — makes this novel one that you should put into the hands of any teen or tween girls that you know.

One scene that stands out involves a roomful of high school ‘losers’ who confront school administrators with how they feel about being the victims of bullying and how, when they say they wish they could kill, they mean it. It’s a chilling moment that should be read by every individual who comes in contact with kids in the educational system — parents, teachers, administrators, counselors. It speaks to the desperation of those students whose are so badly bullied that they see school as a living hell, and who can’t fathom a way out of the violence except by initiating lethal violence.

Mother and Daughter Approved
Michael Harmon writes with a deep understanding of what it means to be an outsider. Fortunately for us, he also writes with an understanding of what it means to be a teenage girl. Although this is a young adult novel, I’d highly recommend it any adult who has a middle or high school student in her/his life.

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