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Brutal    by Michael Harmon order for
by Michael Harmon
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Sixteen-year old Poe Holly arrives in Benders Hollow, California from Los Angeles to live with her Dad, while Dr. Nancy M. Holly takes her medical practice to South America. Mom likes to say she is 'saving the world one person at a time', and sees her daughter as 'a rich kid stuck in a not-rich-kid mind'. In constant conflict with Mom, Poe is rebellious and uncontrollable.

There's a lot to Poe Holly, who speaks her mind and is always ready to take a stand for acceptance and equality, and against cliques and bullies. An infant when her parents divorced, Poe doesn't remember Dad; they've never had contact except for a few telephone conversations. The teen has transferred out of as many private schools as she's attended. When Poe learns that Dad is a counselor at the new high school she'll be attending, 'Mom set me up' enters her mind.

Mom lives in a posh LA neighborhood, while Dad's surrounded by perfect houses with groomed lawns and picket fences. Approaching Dad's house, Poe muses, 'A place I didn't and wouldn't fit into. I held my breath for half a minute and didn't even hear a bird chirp. I'd be insane in three days'. Poe is hailed by a neighbor, parentless Andrew, who introduces himself by his nickname, Velveeta. 'The dude looked straight out of a 'Dukes of Hazard' episode ... or one of God's mischievous little angels'.

Singing is Poe's passion. She left behind a band which will probably have a new lead singer if and when she ever returns to LA. Dad's writing a self-help book for teens, and is not very far into it yet. Poe asks if she can read it: 'Yes, if you agree to think about joining the school choir'. Dad noted Poe's pitch-perfect voice as she sang in the shower. When she attempts to join, Poe is berated by the choir director and clashes with the first soloist.

Poe witnesses Velveeta being beaten up by football star Colby and his sidekicks, after being lured into an alley with a fake note from a popular girl. Poe tries to help but Velveeta's attitude is that he gets razzed sometimes. From Dad she learns that Andrew's parents, who had abused and neglected their son, died in a kitchen explosion. In the boys' restroom, Velveeta is beaten by Colby as half the football team watches. Poe attempts to stop them, and reports what she witnessed to school officials and the police, but it's her word against the team's. She's the only one talking, and Velveeta refuses to press charges even though he required hospitalization.

Learning from Theo (another 'conformist to nonconformity' she met on her first day at Benders High) that micro chips are hidden in the school ID badges, Poe uses that information. Undaunted, smart, talented Poe again takes a stand. Exposing herself to danger Poe engages Theo's help in a plot to reveal Colby and his teammates for what they are and what they've done - the resulting scenario is breathtaking and heartstopping.

Michael Harmon, author of The Last Exit to Normal and Skate, tells readers 'I remember and feel so vividly those times as a teenager when the pain and rage and confusion was so strong that it exploded from me ... I know what it feels like to be lost in a place where you should be found'. He dedicates Brutal to 'all teenagers out there who have the courage to stand up for something they believe to be true, and the willingness to overcome mistakes made in trying to make a difference in this world. It's also for the parents, teachers, and administrators who listen to them.' Harmon's Brutal is exactly that, but also potent, compelling, and demanding of attention.

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