Author tackles tough subject matter facing teens

This Chapel Hill Herald column appeared on Aug. 28, 2014, just before Hopkins’ appearance at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill

Ellen Hopkins

As Ellen Hopkins was “finding herself as a writer,” she published hundreds of articles, wrote 20 non-fictions and picture books for children and escaped into poetry and short fiction to feed her creative soul. She had no intention of writing for teens until the idea for her first novel, Crank (McElderry) came to her.

She knew she had to tell it from the point of view of her daughter “who happened to be a teen at the time” and was facing an addiction to meth. Hopkins knew she “had to write for” teens. She’s published 10 free-verse novels, each of which has been on The New York Times top 10 list. The more than 4.5 million copies of her books in print prove her teen appeal as she covers difficult issues like perfection, prostitution, sexual abuse and more.

Her newest book, Rumble (McElderry, ages 14 and up), was conceived after she posted on Facebook in response to a mosque bombing. “We all serve one Creator,” Hopkins wrote and was startled by the response of a 16-year-old who responded, “It’s awfully arrogant of you to think I have to believe in anything.”

Hopkins, remembering her own teen struggles with the big questions of life, led her to create “Rumble’s” hero Matt Turner. Matt is introduced when he’s sent to the school counselors apparently because of his brilliant senior essay questioning religion.

One soon learns there’s much more going on when the counselor’s “demeanor softens like gelatin on a hot plate,” it turns out that he’s worried that Matthew’s not “really processed Luke’s death. It’s been almost six months. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?” While the counselor’s seems callous, it’s soon clear that Matt’s struggling with a volcanic anger that is “red hot, white hot, silvery hot,” strong enough to think about “taking a dead-of-night slow cruise through certain neighborhoods, drawing a long bead on designated silhouettes. … One squeeze of my Glock’s trigger, and BLAM!” This and other troubled fantasies set the tone for a layered discovery about his truths, all of them deepening plot and characterization in 500-plus pages of poems.

Matt’s hanging on by threads, especially one important thread, his girlfriend, Hayden, with whom he can communicate without words in a way that is “really special, sort of like Heath bar sprinkles over the vanilla cream cheese frosting on top of the very rich red velvet cupcake. Ultra extra deliciousness. Sometime it’s hard to believe she’s mine.”

Sure she’s gorgeous, but readers will wonder at their connection when they learn Hayden is immersed in a youth group and can go into talking that is “moralistic, preach-whiny, holier-than-thou.” This is the clique, in fact, that bullied Matthew’s younger brother, basketball star, Luke into suicide after he revealed his preference for boys. Before Luke took refuge behind super jock façade, “Fragile as it was. He despised hiding behind the pretense, but he hated more. … Worrying Mom. Embarrassing me. Losing his friends and me losing mine.” Matt is left admiring his honesty and feeling guilty that he wasn’t there for his brother when he’s threatened by a group that is “like well-fed Rottweilers, tearing into an entire flock of chickens, just to watch feathers fly and get off on the piteous squawking. All fangs and slobber. Zero sympathy.”

Life is no better at home where Matt’s coach father, who didn’t disguise his disgust of Luke, now finds relief in alcohol and resuming an old affair with his true love. He doesn’t conceal the truth, he’s married Matt’s mother because she was pregnant with him. Matt’s mother, meanwhile, escapes into alcohol and religion, too. She only comforts her son when he wakes from a nightmare in which he’s seen his brother’s face “plum blue. And he’s smiling.” As Matt puts it, “their house is a sponge, absorbing regret until it can hold no more and disillusionment drips through the bloated pores.”

Things get much worse before they get better. Matt (and readers) long for his relief. His misery is both palpable and genuine because of Hopkins’ skillful blending of spot-on dialogue and strong word choices. It is no wonder that he slips into comforting sex with the loving Alexa and that gives temporary respite, as does his relationship with a beloved uncle who suffers from PTSD. Finally by story’s end, a painful series of events lead to a satisfying resolution.

For a book that has so many themes (fundamentalism, guilt, PTSD, forgiveness, love and bigotry, to name a few) and so much internal thinking, “Rumble” is a fast-paced read. Perhaps this is because it’s authentic voice and the many twists and turns that occur right up to the ending.

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