The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, by Kate Hattemer

Kate Hattemer's The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is the kind of challenging, dialogue-driven teen drama I would have absolutely devoured as a kid. Sadly, I read it as an adult, which left me with a somewhat different reaction.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is narrated by Ethan Andrezejczak, an unassuming, inarticulate student at a challenging Minnesota arts academy. The school has been hosting the filming of For Art's Sake!, a reality TV show that pits nineteen of the most talented (and photogenic) Selwyn students against each other in a weekly competition to win a $100,000 arts scholarship. Ethan and his friends aren't particularly interested in the show, until Ethan accidentally overhears a conversation that indicates that the “reality” part of the show is being manipulated, and school officials start suppressing any hint of criticism or rebellion.

The characters in Hattemer's story use art and literature—particularly Ezra Pound's The Cantos, which Ethan is assigned—to explore a series of thorny questions. When we evaluate art, should we take the artist's feelings and actions into account? Does the public want to be deceived about the line between art and reality? Is all art, no matter what the medium, innately artificial? As a teenager, I would have found these types of questions dazzling, and as an adult they're still fascinating to consider... except for the fact that I found Hattemer's chosen medium totally implausible. I mean, how many high schools actually assign an 800-plus-page-long, unfinished, multilingual poem by an acknowledged Nazi supporter? This isn't even an advanced class, just a normal junior-senior English Lit course! I tried to focus on the issues the author was raising, but it was considerably trickier with my brain constantly shrieking, “YEAH, RIGHT.”

In addition to the above complaint, I had another, and more urgent, problem with this story. [WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD.] When I ignore all the wordy artistic pondering, the plot climax of this story involves our hero knowingly sending a cancer-ridden gerbil to a painful death via electrocution, in order to change the outcome of a fake reality TV show. Both my teenage and adult selves are 100% in agreement on this one: that is not okay. In fact, that is so not okay I am unlikely to read another book by this author. I admired—and honestly enjoyed—most of Ms. Hattemer's story, but a protagonist who electrocutes a dying and defenseless animal is the kind of thing I can neither forgive nor forget.

Review based on publisher-provided copy.
Posted by: Julianka


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