“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. This quote from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities has been used to describe many and various situations and circumstances. One place for which this quote can be particularly apt is high school. For some people, the time they spent in grades 9-12 will come to be the happiest in their lives, their “glory days,” and will represent the lifelong pinnacle of their personal achievements. Others will experience the opposite: four years of seemingly endless antagonism and disrespect possibly alternating with utter invisibility. For most, the Dickens quote reflects the wild and unpredictable swings between ecstasy and agony that is the high school experience. In Brutal Youth, debut author Anthony Breznican takes us on a journey through the freshman year in a very troubled Catholic high school in Pennsylvania.
Lorelei Paskal expects this to be a great year. At her old school, Lorelei became an outcast after her mother’s debilitating accident at work. She’s transferring to St. Michael’s for a fresh start with people who don’t know her or her family. As long as she sticks to her meticulously thought out plan, this time she will be popular.
Peter Davidek is average. He’s an average student from an average family, which makes him the perfect target on his first day at St. Michael’s for the ritualized hazing of the incoming underclassmen by both the students and the faculty. It’s all in good, character building fun. It is during this “fun” that Davidek befriends fellow freshman Noah Stein. Stein’s face bears a scar that he will not talk about. And, being in no mood to tolerate the ritualized abuse, Stein does the unthinkable: he fights back. This does not sit well with the upperclassmen, most of the faculty or the parish priest, Father Mercedes, and now both boys will be targeted to receive escalating “pranks” until they conform to St. Michael’s traditions. The question now is who will break first?
In Brutal Youth, Anthony Breznican allows readers to “attend” the 1991 school year at St. Mike’s along with the incoming freshmen. Readers, as will the students, learn (or remember) how treacherous navigating the hallways of high school can be. There are no heroes or villains in this novel. All of the characters, faculty, students and family members are well drawn and complex. Everyone has their own agenda, and sometimes the experiences that older adults accumulate can be as crippling as the lack of experiences for younger adults when determining how best to act in a situation. Breznican also illustrates nicely the development, derailing and re-forging of fragile new relationships.
One of the most revelatory moments for young people moving into adulthood is the realization that while adults may know and have experienced more than their younger counterparts, adults are often still doing the best they can to deal with life’s seemingly endless challenges. Brutal Youth is a nice reminder, or possibly introduction, of this for readers, both young adults and adults.