The Brimstone Journals
By Ron Koertge
image retrieved 1/27/13 from
Koertge, Ronald. The Brimstone Journals. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7636-1742-4
Grim. Depressing. Unnerving. This collection of free-verse poetry by Ron Koertge paints a bleak portrait of modern youth. Told through the voices of fifteen teens, personal pain and turmoil characterize the lives of students at Branston High School, here nicknamed Brimstone. Teens tell of their struggles to relate to one another and their families. Each of the students represented seems to embody a particular stereotype: jock, nerd, slut, misunderstood musician, smart kid. All are angry, envious, and full of hurt over the cruelties of life. None of these students has “good” coping skills. None seem to have anyone they trust to talk to about their pain. Their existence goes on, hurling them through time, on what seems to be their path of destiny. The most dangerous of the group is Boyd, who has formed a fast friendship with someone from outside the school, who is prepping Boyd to help him stage a violent attack at the school. All in the name of revenge, all to right the wrongs the various other stereotypical students have imposed on their classmates.
Poems have a strong voice, each beginning with a “signature” to identify the speaker. The voice remains consistent throughout for each student, though the reader sees shifting loyalties and emotions. Various moods are represented, although none of them would be considered positive: depressed, fearful, anxious, overwhelmed, sad, betrayed, bewildered. Sheila reveals her crush on her friend Monica, then must suffer the pain of rejection when she discovers the infatuation is not mutual.
Mr. Koertge has assembled an intense collection of his poetry to convey this story. The cover art is also disturbing, in muted blacks, browns, grays, and reds. Several of the faces are smudged out. From the outset, the reader has clues that this collection will be dark and somber. Each section of the book is numbered, with the numbers slightly smudged, as well. An air of disarray is obvious.
I do not recommend this book for any reader. My observations and experiences lead me to believe that this is not a reasonable representation of most students in American high schools. To compile so many characters living such dire lives gives the impression that all teens live with hopelessness. For a more realistic representation, a smattering of difficult situations mixed with a healthy dose of everyday teens would have been more appropriate. It is hard to take this presentation of the lives of teens seriously when it is so heavily weighted with negativity. Balance would have greatly benefited this work.
Pat Tate (Carousel 19, Winter 2001)
Ron Koertge's The Brimstone Journals tells the story of a High School class and how a tragedy, similar to the Colorado shooting, is narrowly avoided. The various members of the class express their thoughts and feelings in poems which clearly reveal their different characters and concerns. The book provides a telling insight into what it is like being a class of teenagers in an American High School.
Clive Barnes (Books for Keeps No. 130, September 2001)
Page by page, fifteen American high school students share their hang-ups, loves and hates, and the pressures of parents and peers. Presented like free verse, each voice confides in the reader as if to a private diary, without inhibition or mitigation. Koertge hasn't given himself enough space to explore or resolve the tensions that he ruthlessly discovers. It's a disturbing read, which raises interesting questions and connections, and will invite horror, sympathy and recognition from older teenagers.
We make plans, we download from that
supersecret website, we draw diagrams,
or go on a weapons recon, and Mike just
Not me. I keep both fists in my pockets
and nod. Otherwise my voice, my hands,
Then I look at the list: everyone who
ever blew me off, flipped me off,
or pissed me off.
So I shake a little. It’ll be worth it.
· Post on the board: “School violence is perpetrated by mean people who only want to die in an infamous way.”
· Students will line up across the front of the room according to how strongly they agree/disagree with the statement- left side strongly agree, right side strongly disagree. Fold the line in the middle, bringing one end down so that each student stands across from someone. This will line up students with opposing views on the issue.
· Students will participate in a “talk a mile a minute” activity, in which pairs of students talk to persuade their partner to agree with their viewpoint. After one minute, partners shake hands & have a seat.
· Have a whole class discussion on viewpoints and what leads people to develop their beliefs on such a controversial topic.
· The teacher will share the poem in the section above, from The Brimstone Journals. It is one in the collection of poems told in the voices of fifteen students, one of whom is Boyd, a hard luck teenager who has gotten in over his head with a dropout planning school violence.
· Students will discuss their reactions to the poem, in relation to the previous discussion on school violence.
· Students will read the rest of the poems from Boyd’s viewpoint in The Brimstone Journals, then reflect on what led Boyd to consider school violence, how the discussion escalated, and his reaction as the incident came to a close.
· Students will then consider reactions of other characters in the book.
· Students will write a persuasive poem, in any style, conveying their own perspective on school violence.
Other books by Ron Koertge
Author’s website: http://ronkoertge.com/
· Stoner & Spaz
· Shakespeare Bats Cleanup
· Boy Girl Boy
· Margaux with an X
· The Brimstone Journals
· Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs
· The Arizona Kid
· Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses
· Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz II
· Where the Kissing Never Stops
· Mariposa Blues
· The Harmony Arms
· Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
· The Boy in the Moon
· Making Love to Roget's Wife: Poems
· Geography of the Forehead
· Heart Of The City
· Father Poems
· 12 Photographs of Yellowstone
· The Boogeyman
· Life on the edge of the continent : selected poems of Ronald Koertge
· And Through The Woods