Kate Hattemer, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy
When a reality TV show hijacks a Minneapolis arts academy, the school idealists and misfits resent their classmates’ sudden stardom. But a unit on Ezra Pound awakens four bohemians’ desire to resist. Suddenly, their anonymous epic poem becomes the flashpoint between Hollywood glamor and free-spirited artistry. Just when it seems art triumphs over spectacle, though, these poetic insurgents discover the power media charm really wields. They must face their own part in transforming their school.
Superficially, Kate Hattemer’s first novel shows four teenagers rebelling against mindless conformity handed down by adults who hold unquestioned authority. But thinking backward, it actually deals with illusions. This includes illusions we learn from authority, like the belief in raffish artistry, or illusions sold us for duplicitous purposes, like television’s selectively edited charisma. But we’re most blinded by the illusions we create ourselves, which here means mainly the gulf between romantic malarkey and real love.
Ethan Andrezejczak, our first-person narrator, and his three fellow rhyme rebels use post-colonial traditions of long poetry to protest how TV’s “For Art’s Sake” has transformed Selwyn Academy. Ethan loves his friends wholly, but knows them, too. It’s hard to romanticize what we truly know. Thus he dedicates his greatest loyalty to Maura Heldsman, a beautiful ballerina who apparently doesn’t know him. Besides the media illusions, Ethan surrounds himself with made-up relationships with virtual strangers.
When Ethan discovers Maura needs the reality show’s top prize, a hefty scholarship, to achieve her lifelong dreams, his first illusion shatters. He cannot hate something that gives hope. But he also discovers how little he knows Maura, forcing him to choose. Does he sacrifice his illusion, or double down, making her even more unattainable? His final answer lies somewhere between the extremes. Like us, he needs his illusions to persevere in a contentious world.
Hattemer puts Ethan through remarkable changes. As his friends’ guerilla rebellion permeates the school, long-buried secrets get exposed, often at great cost. Selwyn Academy apparently harbors more layers of duplicity and collusion than a John Grisham novel, and whenever they expose one, another proves hidden beneath it. Soon, Ethan’s neck-deep in something he never anticipated. And he painfully discovers that everyone, even your best friend, even your teacher, even your unrequited love, has their price.
The magnitude of illusions Ethan must shatter is both joyous and painful. Not all illusions are bad: the illusion that he knows his English teacher permits him to delve into literature without playing academic politics. But the illusions sold to him, like those surrounding the television show he reflexively hates without first getting to know it, undermine his ability to make smart, informed decisions. Ethan’s illusions collapse, not from disenchantment, but from plain old reality.
Nevertheless, Ethan’s rhyme rebels pursue justice for their bamboozled friends, because they’re young enough to believe their actions matter. By his own confession, Ethan’s visions don’t coincide with life’s often-pitiless trajectory. Yet in refusing to conform, the rhyme rebels discover unanticipated capacities to believe, love, and strike blows against the man. Had I children, I’d wish them half the moxie Ethan demonstrates, because once you have the courage to act, nobody can take that away.
Young adult literature has seen recent great popularity with grown-ups. Despite the real-world setting, Ethan could potentially rank with Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen. We adults easily vanish into ourselves because we’ve sublimated our dreams to the harsh realities around us. We still believe our shiny dreams, but life’s pressures keep us from pursuing them. It’s hard to improve ourselves while pulling full-time jobs. Youth fiction lets us reclaim the ability to dream without limits.
Because Ethan sees life with unjaded wonder, he’s an appealing character, not just for Hattemer’s intended young adult audience, but for grown-ups, too. He makes us believe we can restore meaning ourselves when confronted by faux reality and for-profit illusions. He helps us realize we needn’t remain enslaved, provided our dreams remain vibrant. Even when dreams collide with unexpected circumstances, Ethan continues moving forward. Because he still believes his actions matter, he’s free to act.
All ages will enjoy this book because it addresses lessons we could all stand to learn: the difference between the ideals, good or ill, we project on others, and their awkward reality. The difference between art-as-art and art-as-business, and why they’re mutually dependent. The gulf between the life we planned, and the life we live. Ethan, with his dry wit and relentless self-sabotage, is a great character because he’s us. His illusions are our hope.