[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Dec. 27, 2008.] In middle school, we were tormented annually by something called the Presidential Fitness Test. If you failed (as I inevitably did at the “arm hang”), they gave you a T for “tried.”
Things are a little different for Katniss Everdeen. If she fails, the 16-year-old dies.
“The future” equals dystopia in much of science fiction, and Suzanne Collins’s gripping new novel for teens, The Hunger Games, is no exception.
After society’s collapse from environmental chaos and a subsequent failed rebellion, what’s left of humanity is organized into 12 districts. (There were 13, but the last one was obliterated as punishment for rebelling.)
Kept in poverty by a totalitarian government, the populace is forced to labor to keep The Capitol (what used to be Denver) in sumptuous splendor. Katniss and her mother and sister live in District 12, formerly Appalachia, where they would have starved if Katniss didn’t sneak daily into the forest to go hunting. (Poaching is technically punishable by death, but local officials are more likely to buy her game than arrest her.)
It’s not the setup that gives “The Hunger Games” its crackling energy.
But Collins pours so much detail into her world-building and her characters that the book grabs you even before the games begin.
Those games would make even Nero’s Rome blanch. Every year, a boy and a girl are chosen via lottery to “represent” their district in The Hunger Games.
The event, required viewing for the rest of the nation, is a blood sport in which the 24 teens are dumped, gladiator-style, into a locked arena and left to fight it out in front of cameras. The last one alive wins freedom and a lifetime of riches.
This year, to Katniss’s horror, her 12-year-old sister’s name is called. Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place.
While she believes she’s doomed (no “tribute” from District 12 has won in decades), Katniss is too much of a fighter to go serenely to her death.
Her skill with a bow and arrow and her ability to find food in the woods may even the odds against competitors from wealthier districts who train with weapons all their lives. Her fellow tribute, the local baker’s son, Peeta, hits on a strategy: The two of them will act as star-crossed lovers to attract the sympathy of sponsors.
(Food and medicine can be parachuted in – for a price.)
Only Katniss isn’t sure Peeta is really acting. And as days pass, it becomes harder for her to tell what her real feelings are and what is just acting for the ever-present cameras.
Collins writes so close to the ground that a reader’s viewpoint becomes inseparable from that of Katniss. So we experience her amazement at the rich food and luxurious surroundings – as well as her fury at the obscene “entertainment” that brings her to The Capitol.
When she’s being exfoliated, depilated, and in general, made camera-ready, she feels totally removed from her team of stylists.
“I know I should be embarrassed, but they’re so unlike people that I’m no more self-conscious than if a trio of oddly colored birds were pecking around my feet,” Katniss says.
While readers might be expecting the familiar mix of spunky-yet-sensitive, Collins has crafted a different kind of action heroine. Katniss is not prone to considering the feelings of others, as Collins makes clear in the first pages.
She tried to drown a stray kitten her younger sister found, since it meant one more mouth for her to feed. (The cat has yet to forgive her.)
And she may be the least introspective teenage girl in the history of teenage girldom. In fact, Peeta, who tries to cling to his ideals in the face of government-sponsored murder, is the closest thing to a traditional hero District 12 has.
That is, if he’s telling Katniss the truth.
The book is considered suitable for readers 12 and up, but that would depend on the 12- (or even 13-) year-old.
Collins largely avoids graphic descriptions of violence, but a couple of the players’ deaths are emotionally disturbing. And although the story is set in the future, the totalitarian regime’s punishments can be downright medieval. (Katniss is waited on by a servant whose tongue was surgically removed for treason.)
But “The Hunger Games” is more than just an action novel waiting to be turned into a PG-13 movie. There are a bunch of big ideas driving the book, from the injustice of a few people living in comfort while the rest of the world goes hungry to the priority placed on entertainment in a society where many do without necessities.
There are historical parallels to everything from the Irish Potato Famine to World War II and Stalinist Russia.Once the action begins, these themes have to hang on by their fingernails, it’s true, but the high-octane plot can’t quite shake them.
I was assigned “1984” in the eighth grade, and certainly “The Hunger Games” is nowhere near as bleak as Orwell’s dystopia.
Besides, it would take more than a cage full of rats to knock the fight out of Katniss Everdeen.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.