Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

I think I have a slight addiction to end-of-the-world books. This is another book where the government uses an environmental disaster to impose a dystopian regime upon an unsuspecting populace.

In this particular variation on the theme, the melting of the polar ice caps has led to the world being flooded, leaving only tiny numbered islands to house the human race. Eighteen years ago, Earth Mother (whose description reminds me of a female Mr. Rogers, but with a twisted environmental/dictatorial bent. I think it's the constant references to her kindly eyes and sweater that does it) somehow came to power, and decided to Enclose the polar caps, stabilizing the environment there to better match the environment on the rest of the planet, which seems to be a constant spring. There will be no more snow, no more changing leaves, and polar bears are already extinct (sadface!).

Honor was born in the eighth year of enclosure, and now at age ten she has moved with her parents from the wilds of the Northern Islands (where the Enclosure is happening) to Island 365. Right from the beginning Honor doesn't quite fit in with the other kids. Thanks to her unconventional early childhood, she hardly knows enough to get into the elite Old Colony School and often has trouble keeping up in class. Her mother doesn't work (though, allegedly, not from lack of trying to get an engineering job), her father takes Honor on illegal (or at least discouraged) trips to the ocean to actually touch the water, and, perhaps most obviously, Honor's very name doesn't fit in. Everyone born in the eighth year of enclosure must have a name that starts with H, and while Honor was on the approved list of names, it certainly doesn't fit in with a class filled with Harriets and Helenas.

As Honor adjusts to life on Island 365, her parents start to act stranger. They violate curfew and when Honor's mother becomes pregnant with a second child, she refuses to give him back to the community where he could be raised by a childless couple. After Quintillian, Honor's new little brother, is old enough to go to school (he is the only brother - a terrible insult - in the school, apparently), Honor's mother can return to work, but the only job she can get is in the gift wrapping department of the Central Store, working alongside the anonymous Orderlies who silently perform all of the menial labor required to keep Island 365 running.

After the parents of her friend Helix Disappear - the phenomenon where people seem to literally vanish from their houses or work, or even from the store on Errand Day, Honor knows something is wrong with her parents. They were friends with Helix's parents, and would often break curfew together. Honor begins to rebel, slowly at first, until finally she tells the school administration that she wants to change her name to something more appropriate.

Within days of changing her name, Honor's and Quintillian's parents Disappear. When the school finds out, Honor and Quintillian are forced to live at the school with the Orphans, other children whose parents have Disappeared and now work at the school doing janitorial work in return for shelter and leftover food at night.

Honor is shaken. She knows its her fault her parents were taken (no matter what the pamphlets the school nurse gives her say), and with the help of her fellow Orphan, Helix, she's determined to rescue them from whatever terrible fate they have been sentenced to.

After the end-of-the-world bender I've been on recently, there wasn't very much about this book that was surprising for me. One thing I did enjoy is that the traditional roles were reversed: so often in YA lit, it's the parents who are conformists and the child who is rebelling against an oppressive way of life. Here, Honor is the one who is determined to fit in and be a perfect citizen while her parents are struggling against conformity in every way possible.

Also on the awesome side: little clues left in the book for the observant reader to pick up on and realize how far the government's totalitarian control extends. For example, at one point Honor mentions that she's reading the book The Wizard of Oz - where Dorothy falls asleep and dreams about the land of Oz. At first I was pissed, because as anyone who knows anything about the Oz books knows, that was the ending created for the film. In the books, Dorothy really does travel to Oz. But eventually it's revealed that the book has been censored, because of course Dorothy travels to Oz via tornado, a weather phenomenon that Earth Mother has sought to eliminate. Additionally, the protagonist is not the Dorothy Gale we know and love, but Dorothy Dale, since Earth Mother doesn't want anyone to know about gale-force winds. So Allegra Goodman gets major props for that one from me.

On the other hand, there is a lot that is unanswered in this story. Perhaps part of it is because it's from the point of view of a 10-12 year old. How did Earth Mother come to power? Why on earth does she go by such a silly name? (I can't help but picture her - in addition to being an evil female Mr. Rogers - as the robot Mother from Futurama) How are the Orderlies created? Why are Honor's parents pretty terrible at trying to genuinely reach her and teach her about rebellion?

And that might be my biggest problem with the book (minor spoilers after the jump concerning Honor's parents)

When Honor's parents do something she says is Not Allowed or Unacceptable (the book has a big thing for capitalizing words to make them official), they never explain to her why they are acting the way they are. They tell Honor that the things she's learning in school or this dystopian version of girl scouts are propaganda, but there's never any explanation of what exactly the propaganda is, what it means, or what the truth it.

And perhaps worst of all, after Honor is reunited with her parents and displays a great amount of bravery and ingenuity, they refuse to take her on their next adventure to make a real attempt at overthrowing the government. Okay, granted, a coup isn't necessarily the best place for a child, but they send her back to her terrible school with no explanation other than someone needs to take care of her little brother. Maybe this stems at least partially from my own distaste at the idea of being forced to care for a sibling (I have an autistic brother who will probably require lifetime care to some extent or another, but my parents have always told me they don't expect me to become his caretaker, though they hope I'll have him over for holidays and such), but it seems incredibly callous to send their daughter back into what is essentially an abusive situation without any explanation. Especially since the abuse could easily escalate because Honor was already developing a reputation as a problem child as an Orphan, and brazenly ran away from school in the middle of a typhoon.
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