This novel reminds me of Lois Lowry's THE GIVER, Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE and, peripherally, BUMPED by Megan McCafferty. It has echoes of the style of AMONG THE HIDDEN by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Jeanne DePrau's THE CITY OF EMBER as well, and is a new, thought-provoking novel for YA readers from Canadian poet Hugh MacDonald. According to his biography, he's the winner of the L.M. Montgomery Children's Literature Award, 1990 and the 2004 Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts on Prince Edward Island. I believe this is his first YA novel.
This book is a novel of ideas, and, like the aforementioned books, it doesn't really resolve the ideas he presents. Readers will keep turning pages because there's an adventure here, and the novel's conclusion presents a beginning of new ideas - leading to a more hopeful future for the novel's characters, and perhaps new thoughts for the reader.
"Poor people are lucky," Alice said, bouncing back into the room in a pink floral sundress. "They get to learn so much about life."
Concerning Character: Alice lives in Aahimsa, a city-state named for the Sanskrit word for peace, literally, "to not injure." Alice is the daughter of the mayor of Aahimsa, and she is well blindingly beautiful and indulged and ...well, ignorant, at best, as the quote from pg. 17 of the novel suggests. Alice is too precious a child to be left alone while her mother, the mayor of Aahimsa, is busy, so when Alice was small, Mayor Blanchefleur had chose a motherless "friend" from the poor section of town for her. Through the years, Nora has gone from a enforced (paid?) companion to an actual partner -- sort of. Nora thinks she returns Alice's affection, she thinks that when they're older, they'll partner, and have babies of their own, bu the relationship is imbalanced in its power dynamic. Nora does the work, Alice calls the shots. Alice wants to have the baby, and Nora has no doubt she'd end up doing all of the diapering. Heterosexual partnerships and conception are all in the past, and Alice and Nora represent the brave new world. But, if you scratch the crust of Nora's world, there's lava just bubbling beneath the surface. She's not a companion or partner, she's a badgered, teased, bullied servant, and there's got to be more to life than this!
In Aahimsa, Mankind's inability to get along with each other has culminated with the women taking control. They have ejected the men, first dominating them politically, and then using military force to divide the sexes. Births are regulated, and baby boys are set aside, leaving some of them "complete" and able to breed while sterilizing or terminating the majority of the rest at birth. Other of the feminized city-states have done away with men entirely, relying on cloning to propagate the species. Mayor Blanchefleur feels sure that's the wrong direction, that women are made of male and female, and that, in time, the old biological urges will fade. Men are good for being forest rangers, and picking up the dead birds that fly into the force field around the walls surrounding Aahimsa, but, aside from those left "complete" to provide "fluids" for the Temple of Life until their usefulness to society is at an end, to Blanchefleur, they're not good for much else.
A chance discovery while in the woods picking blackberries outside the Blanchefleur summer house discloses a hidden baby -- an infant of indeterminate age who is discovered to be an outsider -- the lumpy appendage between its legs seals its fate. Alice is all for defiance and rule-breaking when it's not that serious, but she's appalled -- their little doll is suddenly dangerous. She's determined to call her mother, who will then call the guards to exterminate the vermin. But, Nora has a different point of view. Nothing so small is vermin. Nothing that tiny is dangerous. It tracks, and follows her face with its eyes. It smiles at her. It's... alive.
Nobody's going to take this little outsider -- this baby boy -- away and kill him. Not while Nora's got strong arms and legs to carry him away...
Critical Reader Reaction: The author hasn't made the mistake of heavy handedly "sending a message" with this story, though he clearly has a few things to say. As he depicts a city-state with political upheaval and a police force still in place, it's clear that he's describing a place of imperfection. Regardless of the women touting the increase of peace in their time, and carrying with them tales of the man-made wars which happened before the Uprising and bitterness from a distant history of being second class citizens, nothing is as peaceful as it should be. There is no Utopia with the women in control, and no real fairness. However, one of the drawbacks of writing dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction as parable is that the moral of the story - or several "morals" may appear unintentionally.
The narrative is vague on how women take over the political landscape to begin with, but that simply requires the suspension of disbelief it takes to get into any story. Though the plot had an answer to most of the details of how this post-apocalyptic world worked, I had questions on how the transgender or intersex would be dealt with in this strange new world. And, what happens in a society with no heterosexual options if you have fewer gay or lesbian tendencies?
Though we're told of Alice and Nora's alleged affection and fidelity for each other, I found myself unconvinced. When their paths inevitably part, Nora seems only vaguely regretful, ditto when their paths cross again -- which to me would have had an impact second only to a thunderclap. What Nora does have a strong and visceral emotional reaction about is the outsider baby she and Alice find. Despite the infant dribbling liquid poo down its legs within the first hour, Nora is entranced.
Nora's mother, after all, is a worker in the Palace of Caretakers and had "told her all about it," so Nora's breezily perfect handling of the infant is, obviously, going to be effortless. She never makes a mistake. She never nearly drops his slick, squirmy self, and she loves him immediately, in spite of his high-pitched screams for no real reason, the poo, and the tremendous responsibility he represents. The presentation of maternal instinct is idealized to an extreme in this. Worse, Alice has no maternal instinct, as she's already been depicted as blonde and selfish, and pushed aside as merely decorative. Nora - despite not giving birth, despite not being raised around small children, who are cared for in the Palace of Caretakers, and not involved with the general populace as a deterrent to childbirth, Nora is regardless an immediate warm and loving Earth Mother.
The trouble is less what this says about Nora - and Alice - and the perception that "of course all good girls love babies," but takes me back to an odd moment in the beginning of the novel, where the emotions of a male in helpless, immediate love are much the same. When the first man sees the outsider baby, he's ...pleasant, but largely indifferent. It's more "oh, it's a baby," than "where has it BEEN all my life??" Men, too, have been raised in this society for generations, separated from women. When a young man in the novel first encounters a young woman at the beginning of the book, he, too is struck with that same helpless, melting, instinctual... love, ergo, as women automatically love babies, men automatically...? Is this a statement about humankind? [A SPOILERY QUESTION} Why, then, don't the old men react in this way toward Nora? Just because they're old doesn't mean they're totally dead, does it? The novel does not at ALL touch on the potential tension of a lone woman in a camp of men - no one even looked at Nora flirtatiously. It seems to me greatly disingenuous to bring her to that place, but avoid that conversation. What about the fears she'd been told about the men all her life, and how they were led around by their "appendages," to use another euphemism? ... Anyway, I found this a missed opportunity for further discussion, as well as problematic on a number of levels.
Despite the slight unevenness of the narrative, paper villains, and the questions the reader is left with, this book indeed fulfills its objective, which is to stimulate and create ideas and generate thought about gender dynamics, war, peace, and the responsibility each of the sexes have, in creating a better world. I'd suggest this novel to older teens, and believe it has crossover potential for adults as well.
I received this book courtesy of Acorn Press, in return for my two cents, Canadian. You can find THE LAST WILD BOY by Hugh MacDonald online, or at an indie bookstore in Canada or elsewhere.