Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire

For months I have been hearing about The Hunger Games, a young adult novel by Suzanne Collins.  Not only had all of my teacher friends read it, but so had many other people I know who are not teachers, nor do they have children.  This should have been my first clue that The Hunger Games is so much more than just another young adult book.  But, as someone who has to read children's literature for my job on a  daily basis, I usually put my foot down about reading it during my precious free time each day.  Finally, a critical mass of "It's so good!" and "You really have to read it!" built up and I borrowed the book and it's sequel, Catching Fire, from a friend.

What a great decision that turned out to be.  I devoured each of them, finishing each in a day.  Young adult novels they may be, but there is plenty of meat to them to satisfy even the most discriminating adult reader.In a post-apocalyptic North America, the land is divided into 12 districts, each with it's own role in the larger society, and all ruled with an iron fist by The Capitol.  The main character, Katniss, lives in District 12, the coal mining district located in what was once Pennsylvania/West Virginia.  At 16, she supports her mother and younger sister by sneaking out of the district and hunting in the nearby woods with her best friend Gale-an act punishable by death.  Once a year, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games, where two 12-18 year olds are taken from each district and forced to compete to the death in a large arena.  When Katniss's sister is selected to go, Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  She and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta are sent to the Capitol, where they are paraded around town while those lucky enough to be born into the only place left on the continent that have enough food gawk and make bets on which one will die when.  The Games are shown daily on the only television station, and everyone is required to watch.  The first book details the struggles and horrors of Katniss's first Hunger Games.


In Catching Fire, Katniss is once again the target of the Capitol, not as a lowly tribute, but as a victor.  Now everyone in the country knows her name and face, and the story that was created to help her get help from the public during the first games.  Because of her perceived acts of defiance towards the Capitol, she is seen as a threat to their chokehold on power.  Because the 75th anniversary of the Games is approaching, the government decides to have a special Games-where all previous victors have to compete.  This throws Katniss right back into the spotlight-but this time it turns out she is not competing alone.

These books are phenomenal.  Katniss as a character is richly developed, as are all the other characters.  The action is non-stop, and Collins does a great job creating a mood of unsettling fear.  I felt tense and anxious while reading the book, but in this case those feelings added to rather than distracted from the story.  The first book, The Hunger Games, is a great look at our tabloid culture.  I mean, really, what is a more stunning example of our hunger for tabloid TV taken to it's extreme (yet logical) conclusion than watching people actually have to fight to the death while we watch and make bets?  I guarantee of there was a show like The Hunger Games allowed on TV today someone would watch it.  Remember those videos from the 80s-"Faces of Death"?  I rest my case.

Both books also examine how absolute power corrupts, and how trying to control people with fear, resentment, and aggression leads to an uprising.  People will not be violently oppressed forever-sometimes all it takes is the right person, the right circumstance, to set the whole thing ablaze.  Even if that person doesn't even know she's doing it-as far as she knows, she's just trying to keep herself and her family alive.

The third book in the series comes out this summer, and frankly I can't wait.  The second book ended with such a cliffhanger that I still think about it occasionally when my mind wanders.  If it is anything like the first two, I know I have at least a day of obsessive reading ahead of me!

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