Tuesday, May 29, 2012

REVIEW: The Brimstone Journals

Koertge, R.  (2001).  The Brimstone Journals.  Somerville:  Candlewick

113 pages

Appetizer:  Branston High has the inauspicious nickname of "Brimstone" and with good reason.  One of its students is bullied.  Another is abused by her step-father.  Yet another student is trying to recruit others to an ominous "brotherhood."  One student feels like he is king of the school.  Another seeks freedom from her boyfriend.  Many students feel misunderstood.  Quite a few are religious.  A couple are racist.  Some have controlling parents or parents they disagree with.  A number resist authority.

...okay, so in truth, many of the voices in The Brimstone Journals may sound will probably feel familiar to many students.

A yearbook-style page
from the front of the book
that shows all of the characters
whose poems are featured.
The Brimstone Journals is a novel in verse that includes the 15 voices from the members of the class of 2001.  While each student shares about their personal burdons, hang-ups and interests, an underlying narrative emerges that may threaten the lives of the student body.

Broken up into six parts and with only a few over 100 poems, The Brimstone Journals is a fast read.  The language is easy to follow and it is fun to see the different ways the characters regard one another, but many of the allusions to popular culture are very dated.  (Some of the references include the movies Groundhog's Day, Ghost, and to the actors Harrison Ford and Will Smith (with the assumption that they are both much younger.)  These allusions could be turn-offs for some high school students and could make some teachers feel old to have to describe the setting and context of this book.

My character notes!
The real difficulty students will probably have with this novel in verse, however, will be the number of characters to keep track of.  Certain characters, like Lester, Boyd and Kelli are given more attention, but it could be very difficult to keep track of all the names (especially since the perspectives are interwoven in no particular order).  So, this is definitely a book to assign student to follow a particular character (I did this with another novel in verse about poetry called Bronx Masquerade...it worked very well) or to have students record character logs.

There are a lot of merits of taking on this book though:  students can research some of the social issues in the book and report statistics over long periods of time.  (Some topics would include violence in school or between family members, the effectiveness of ways to prevent bullying and violence, statistics and definitions of sexual assault, information about environmental movements, issues about body image in both men and women, tolerance in terms of race, religion and immigrant status, respect across cliques, have debates about gun control, etc.)  As you can probably see, this book considers a lot of issues and does a pretty good job with exploring them (I say pretty good, because I did feel like some of the characterizations were on the superficial side, particularly the way some of the black characters were depicted as well as Boyd and his not-so-great relationship with his father.  Plus, many of the issues or concerns that are secondary to the larger issues of school violence are left unresolved.).

Dinner Conversation:


"My dad'd freak if he knew I played
with it, but I can't help myself.  And
I'm not hurting anybody.

The bullets are across the room" (p. 3)


"Father does not want me to forget the country
I have never seen.  Every day an hour of
Vietnamese only.  Then another of music
with traditional instruments." (p. 4)


"We are the champions!
Numero Uno!!
Half of us already got scholarships,
full ride.
Everybody loves us--chicks, teachers,
Man, standing out there in the center
of the gym in my letterman's jacket
with my buddies.  It's the best!" (p. 6)


"Damon is driving me crazy.  He's got like
our whole life planned:  college, jobs, kids,
even what kind of car he'll buy for me.
Already it's always the same." (p. 7)


I don beleave in the white man sway.
I beleave thoze rools of hiz--dat
spellin, hiz gramma, doze frag mints
and common splizes--I beleave
awl them roolz r jis another way
2 keep my black brotherz and sistahs
down." (p. 9)


"Twenty-five million teenagers go to
twenty thousand schools in the U.S.
Ten kids, TEN KIDS, in seven schools
did all the shooting, ALL OF IT,
in 1998-1999.

In the same two years, grownups
in southern California alone massacred
forty people." (p. 13)


"What a violent country:  "He kissed
me so hard."  "I was so wasted."  "I hate
her so much."  "I love him to death."
The students even call this well-appointed
and modern high school Brimstone,
a reference to their Bible and to the end
of the world." (p. 28)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

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