I just finished Michael Harmon’s newest book “Brutal” and like his last book, Last Exit to Normal, it is a bonafide winner.  Brutal is edgy, raw and searingly honest.   I finished it in about 3 hours and all because of the main character, Poe Holly. Harmon has created one of the best female protagonists I have read in a long time.  Poe is strong and sassy, a total nonconformist who embraces the counterculture roots of society. She has definite opinions and depending on how you look at things that could be a good thing or a bad thing.  I want to name my child Poe Holly.
All hail Poe Holly!
The first thing you notice about Poe is that she is not a happy camper. Her mother, off to save the day in some remote South American country, dumps her on her father’s doorstep for her to live out the next year. The last time she had seen or heard from him was when she was an infant.  She would much rather be in L.A then good ole Bender Hollow which is place that is so sterile that she is afraid to breathe.  She misses her band back home, her friends, the guys she used to hang out with at Venice beach. Its bad enough she is about to be the new kid again, it’s even worse that her father works as a counselor at the school she is supposed to go to. Oh joy! So Poe adjusts in her own rebellious, over the top way though sometimes goes too far pushing well meaning people to the brink. The humor and sarcasm is spot on and I laughed aloud at some spots like when Poe decided the the gym unifrom policy was not fair.
Shortly after we met Poe, we meet her neighbor Andrew aka Velvetta for his love of cheese.  There is something a little bit off about him and this makes him an outsider. Poe’s description of him is priceless: “He looked like one of God’s mischevious liitle angels had a field day in the cast-off section of the human parts bin”  Nonetheless the two become friends and friends is something Velvetta desperately needs.  Being an outsider is rough in Bender High School and harrassing, hurting Velvetta is considered a team sport with many people taking part.  I think the football team looks at it as part of their daily exercise routine.
As much is this book is about Poe and her underlying issues, the book has another theme permeating the pages.  It is about the effects of being an outsider in social hierarchies that exist in schools and communities. In most schools, jocks are at the top of the food chain. Remember Columbine? I don’t think anyone can forget it.  The world at large finally got to see just how dangerous this maze of social hierarchy can be. Schools are ruled by groups and cliques. Beneath the surface of winners is a seething mass–the anti-social, the alienated, and the exploited.  I think any administrator, counselor, teacher or parent concerned with bullying should read this book.  In fact I would go so far to say that it should be on high school required reading lists. Bullying is not a new problem – it is repeating problem – a problem that needs addressed and Poe does a great job at making her voice known. Violence at schools happens, Poe finds, largely because it’s allowed to happen, especially if it’s done by popular kids or sports stars.  She is brave to shake the tree, to make sure these injustices are not overlooked, brushed under the rug.  We could learn alot from Poe – if only there were more students like her.