The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I can't imagine how hard it was to write a novel about kids being forced to kill each other. Probably much harder than it was to read it. After all, in my limited viewpoint as a person who also writes (although unpublished), I really dislike hurting my beloved, lifelike characters, and much less killing them, or having them do terrible things, unless they are supposed to because they are evil.
But Ms. Collins had to take kids between the ages of 12-16 and force them to deliberately harm each other.
It's a journey into a world in which a whole society plans events and festivities around such barbarism. It's not the Roman Empire. It's a dark future in which North America has become a much smaller continent called Panem. The society is a dystopic one in which the resources are not so much limited as restricted and deliberately kept from those regions whose denizens participated in a rebellion over 40 years ago. Their punishment is to have twenty-four of their children, two from each District, selected in a process called the Reaping. Those who are chosen must go and fight in the Hunger Games. If you've seen Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, then the phrase "two men enter, one man leaves" sort of gives you the idea. Except in this case, it's twenty-four kids enter, and one leaves.
Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, grows up to the age of 16 in this world. She has been taking care of her family since she was 11, hunting illegally in the forests beyond the fence around District 12, bringing back fresh meat and wild plants to feed her young sister and mother. Her heart has become hard so she can survive. But when the day comes of the Reaping, and her young sister Prim's name is called, she volunteers to go to the games in her place, almost unprecedented. Most people know that they won't return, especially the poorly-trained and outfitted tributes from District 12. But her sister is not going to face the sure death that awaits her in the Games. Not when she can.
The other tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, the baker's son. A boy who did a life-saving act of kindness to Katniss several years before, one she can never forget. She doesn't like him for that reason, also because he reminds her of what she doesn't have, as essentially a townie, when her family lives on the fringes, the offspring of a deceased miner. However, they will have to form an alliance dreamed up by their sponsor, Haymitch, who won the Games many years before. He's a drunk, but he is going to do what he can to keep at least one of them alive in the Games.
I wasn't looking forward to reading this. I don't care for dystopian fiction. And the thought of kids killing each other, well it doesn't work for me. However, I decided to give this a read and bought the book a few years ago. Managed to put it off until now. When the Action Heroines group on Goodreads selected it as a group read this month, the choice was made. I started it, and was crying, not too far into the book (made even more painful by the fact that I have a nasty cold right now with a bad sore throat). I was sucked in.
I love a tough, survivor heroine, and Katniss is definitely that. Not only a survivor, but a girl who made sacrifices for her family. She's without a doubt, a very well-developed character. I like the fact that Collins takes the effort to describe Katniss' thought processes so well in this book, her woodcraft, her no-nonsense approach to life. How she suppresses those soft emotions that would have been a liability to her in her present situation. But deep down, how Katniss has the potential for love, and she does love. When Katniss bonds with another tribute, a young girl named Rue, who reminds her of Primrose, I could literally hear and feel my heart breaking. We all know how this ends. And Katniss best of all. But that doesn't mean you can stop feeling emotions, even when the brutal reality of your existence and forced choices seem to dictate otherwise.
That's part of what makes this a difficult story. The fact that kids are forced into a world in which they starve to death, not because there is nothing to eat, but because someone feels that they shouldn't have the basic things like a full belly and a safe life, for political reasons. That's going on today in this world. It should break a person's heart, and it does. Is this so very out there, when in real life, there are child soldiers in the world right now? I know I'm going towards "Soapbox" territory, so I'll stop myself. Yeah, I guess that's the point. Why should I keep my blindfold on to these horrors and immerse myself in safe, happy tales all the time? And forget that events like this do happen (maybe not in this obvious, fictional landscape kind of way), but in a way that is lot less showcased, and much more brutal.
I admit I liked the role reversal here. Peeta, the boy is more emotional, more approachable, more in need of protection. And Katniss is tougher, more armored, the protector. That doesn't hold true across the map, for Peeta shows depths that surprise Katniss and the reader. And likewise, Katniss has her moments when she doesn't have it all figured out.
Since this is first person, we don't get to find out how the grown-ups feel about this travesty. But I can surmise that people like Haymitch, Cinna, even Effie feel their share of anguish for the roles they play every year, as they watch twenty-four more children go off, most of them to their deaths, even if it's well-hidden.
It's a mad world, and all this comes together in this story to propel me through a gamut of emotions, most of them uncomfortable. I could almost identify with the kids, that horror of knowing, "This is it." The Games are real. I was there with them, and I wasn't spared the realness. I guess that's another reason to respect this work, that the author doesn't soften such a terrible concept. She doesn't allow you to settle into a false sense of security that it will be alright. That would only be a form of contempt in my mind. If you're going to go there, then bring it. And she does.
My final verdict: The Hunger Games is tough reading. But it's complex and powerful, and completely involving. I couldn't stop reading this until I was done.
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