Whew. I am not usually a summarizer, but I think in this case, the only way to introduce this book is to introduce you to its main character, Hamish Graham.
Hamish is a smart, middle-class New Zealand boy of European descent, and, at the age of fourteen, he's already killed a man. And a poodle. And those are just the incidents that made the papers. There's more.
He is, quite naturally, boarding at a facility for troubled youths - boys with violent tendencies and/or brushes with the criminal justice system. The trouble with Hamish's brand of 'troubled' is that nobody can figure it out. He's not a product of an emotionally damaging environment. He doesn't have autism, nor any other disorder that he's been tested for. He has baffled the teachers and counselors charged with his care for years, developing a hearty contempt for them along the way, a contempt that occasionally bursts into violence.
As our story begins, he is entering a new home, having nearly gouged out the eyes of a counselor at his last school. His new headmistress hands him a laptop and asks him to write a journal. She wants his version of how he has ended up where he is. The main part of Violence 101 alternates between Hamish's journal entries and the staff reaction to them.
Author Denis Wright is a high school teacher, and my god does it show. Hamish is a complex guy, and Wright is loathe to slap a label on him. Although Hamish does terrible things and considers himself superior to most other human beings, he is aware of the effect of his actions on others. He is obsessed with heroic warriors such as Alexander the Great and New Zealand war hero Charles Upham, and considers himself born into the wrong time and place. He believes that his ruthlessness and courage would in another time be regarded as virtues. He may be right.
I've known kids like this. People medicate them, home-school them, throw up their hands.
It's not a perfect novel. There are stylistic inconsistencies and plot points that resolve rather conveniently. The first two-thirds and last third do not play well together. But this is not a novel for teaching story structure. This is a novel for a high school or adult group to read together and discuss.
Violence 101 is the rare novel that profiles a kid many of us might know. It chooses to neither demonize him nor cast him as some kind of victim, forcing us to confront him on our own terms. Twenty-two people could read this blackly humorous, emotionally intense book and come to twenty-two different conclusions.
Ultimately, I think Violence 101 shows us that even the most seemingly easy-to-categorize kid - a kid guilty of manslaughter, a dabbler in amateur taxidermy, a kid who considers sticking a fork in another kid's face a reasonable strategic move when establishing social heirarchy - may not be exactly what you think.
As Hamish himself says, "Life's all about choices."
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