Three freshmen must join forces to survive at a troubled, working-class Catholic high school with a student body full of bullies and zealots, and a faculty that’s even worse in Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth.
With a plunging reputation and enrollment rate, Saint Michael’s has become a crumbling dumping ground for expelled delinquents and a haven for the stridently religious when incoming freshman Peter Davidek signs up. On his first day, tensions are clearly on the rise as a picked-upon upperclassmen finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on both the students who tormented him for so long, and the corrupt, petty faculty that let it happen. But within this desperate place, Peter befriends fellow freshmen Noah Stein, a volatile classmate whose face bears the scars of a hard-fighting past, and the beautiful but lonely Lorelei Paskal —so eager to become popular, she makes only enemies.
To even stand a chance at surviving their freshmen year, the trio must join forces as they navigate a bullying culture dominated by administrators like the once popular Ms. Bromine, their embittered guidance counselor, and Father Mercedes, the parish priest who plans to scapegoat the students as he makes off with church finances. A coming-of-age tale reversed, Brutal Youth follows these students as they discover that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad may be the only way to survive.
First sentence: “The kid had taken a lot of punishment over the years, so he had much to give back.”
Brutal Youth promises you exactly what the title says—a brutal youth. From the aggressive bullying of the freshmen by the upperclassmen to the lack of concern from the teachers, it’s everything you don’t want to experience in a high school. For these kids, it’s become a norm—surviving this bullying culture that can make any kid and adult a monster.
Set in 1991, Brutal Youth follows:
- three freshmen—Peter Davidek (a likable guy who is forced to go to the school by his parents), Noah Stein (a rebel who refuses to play by the rules and has a secret that’s related to the scar on his face), and Lorelei Paskal (a girl who reinvents herself after being bullied in middle school and just want everybody to like her);
- various upperclassmen like Hannah Kraut (a Senior who is feared by all because she holds a mysterious book that logs humiliating details about her classmates and teachers);
- and teachers—Sister Maria (the headmistress of St. Michaels who is trying to keep the school from closing), Father Mercedes (the pastor who’s intent on closing down the school to save his church and manipulates a student into gathering information to do so), Mr. Zimmer (a teacher and former student of St. Michaels with praying mantis limbs who is Sister Maria’s trusted ally), and Ms. Bromine (the guidance counselor who does whatever she can to make Davidek and Stein’s life horrible).
All of these characters are just trying to survive at their private Catholic high school, St. Michaels.
St. Michaels is fucking brutal. Everywhere you go isn’t safe with its rundown buildings and people ready to shove you into the floor until you’re coughing out dirt. This school’s a viper’s nest, a lion’s den, a wasp’s hive; it’s just a fucking toxic environment, and needs an overhaul in what they do.
Bullying here is no joke. It’s is veiled as a good-ole-hazing tradition that is condoned by the teachers and supposedly “bonds” upperclassmen with freshmen when it actually does nothing of that sort. These kids use bullying as payback for when they were mercilessly bullied as freshmen. The bullying creates anger and resentment that the freshmen carries on at their time at St. Michaels. It’s almost like a pyramid—a pecking order of bullying that gets passed down because of anxiety and frustration, and never changes. At St. Michaels, that order goes: Father Mercedes > Sister Maria (the headmistress) > the teachers > the upperclassmen > the Freshmen. Like a freshmen, Smitty, said, “everybody is somebody’s bully.”
The bullying ranges from upperclassmen name calling to beatings for not having lunch money or cigarettes. It gets increasingly worse and aggressive as the year goes on, where it ends with freshmen paraded around at the annual end-of-the-year “Hazing” picnic. I loved seeing how these characters try to deal with their bullying because there are many ways of dealing with it like going with the flow, joining the upperclassmen to bully fellow classmates, or resisting. Does it work though? Maybe, maybe not.
Brutal Youth is a terrifying, yet thought-provoking book that tackles bullying culture at a school that continues to perpetuate it as a false sense of bonding. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality. At times, it becomes hard to read because of the nature of the pranks and the bullying, but I think it does a fantastic job portraying it. It’s definitely worth a read to see how out of control it really gets and how everybody eventually falls into the bullying mind frame.