The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer


Even its name betrayed the problem. Reality TV: two antonyms right next to each other. It was as bad as “jumbo shrimp” or “fun run.” 
There are few things in life more fun than reading a really funny, well-written, clever, and still poignant, novel. In fact, the only thing that’s better is stumbling across such a book when you were none the wiser, as I did when I picked up The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer.
I don’t know why I decided to buy it – perhaps I saw it on a book list of some sort (I browse so many wonderful book sites that I end up absorbing tons of recommendations inadvertently). Maybe I just liked the sound of vigilante poets. Or, and this is probably the least likely, I just knew it was going to be a delightful read. I wish I was so clairvoyant as that.
In any case, from the moment I picked it up and started reading, I was tumbling headfirst into the private-art-school world of Selwyn Academy, bemoaning, alongside the main characters, the fact that Selwyn has been taken over by For Art’s Sake, a crap-tastic reality show that promises one lucky Selwynite a scholarship if he or she makes it to the top. Whew, excuse the run-on, but I couldn’t help myself there – this is the kind of book run-ons were invented for. Its non-stop wit and Ethan’s dry commentary make the entire reading experience rush on like one incredible run-on sentence.

I love the poem, The Contracantos, which is threaded throughout the plot and inserted, one verse at a time, at the beginning of each chapter, so you finish it right as the students are finishing it at the end of the novel. Here’s one of my favorite sections:

In what is still the recent past,
We Selwynites made art to last.
On fields of beauty we’d purport
To touch the world: our contact sport. 
For art is long and life is short. 

The poem itself is fodder for the fire that builds throughout the novel. It fuels the question, “What is art?”

“Should it matter that Pound was treacherous?” continued BradLee. “Should it matter that he betrayed his country for a cause that was categorically wrong? Is it possible to read his work without our knowledge of his beliefs coloring our reading? Should we even try?” 

This is a story that isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. Does the person behind it really matter when it comes to appreciating the art itself? How far would/should an artist go to promote his/her art? Do the reasons we create art color it? This last question is one that started me thinking about the state of literature in modern society – the way many people only want to give merit to work that they believe “has a purpose” beyond mere entertainment. As if a story that is created to amuse, delight, or help a person escape is less valuable than one with a moral or cultural lesson embedded in complex metaphors throughout its pages. It’s an interesting question to ponder, and The Vigilante Poets explores what makes art art in a very beautiful, poetic, and, yes, artistic, kind of way.

And while Hattemer is stirring up deep philosophical ideas Dead Poet’s Society style (R.I.P. Robin Williams), she also manages to capture the simple things that make life worthwhile. She portrays friendship and the ease with which we play off of the people we know best in a charming, familiar way that will have you thinking, “I know people like that. That sounds like something my friends and I would do/say.” The story shows how the things we are passionate about can consume us, and help or hinder our relationships. Sometimes we build up those around us through our talents, and other times we betray them. As The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy will tell you – that is one very fine line.

If that’s not reason enough to read it than let me also assure you that, in the best way possible, this is just such a fun read. It’s proof that literature can be full of thought-provoking ideas and still be entertaining.

If it were on a reality TV show, I’d vote for it.

Rating: 10/10 

Overall Reaction: “This is the first time in my life I’ve loved a hamster this much.”