To Kill a Mockingjay?

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010.

In late May I wrote on a piece of fiction from one of my favorite “noir” type writers, Philip Kerr.  In reviewing Bernie Gunther’s latest adventure, I pointed out that there were  extant book series I enjoyed, particularly when the author was still alive.  Mockingjay is the last in Collins’ Hunger Games series.  Last summer, I read the first two books from this popular vision of a dystopian future North America.  Aimed at a young adult audience, Collins caught as much fire as her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, particularly after the 2012 release of a film based on the first text.  The cinematic part two in the tale will be released in November 2013.

First, I like young adult literature, though I confess to being uncertain as to why this moniker became attached to certain kinds of books.  I suppose it was a marketing ploy of some type eventually, even if we can agree that there were novels aimed at younger readers published in the early 19th century.  At any rate, young adult or YA, has been a go to source for me in searching out historical fiction and other pieces to use in my classrooms.  Prominent examples include Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (and its follow up The Kingdom on the Waves), Laurie Halse Anderson Speak (among others), M. T. Anderson’s Feed, Gene Yang’s American-Born Chinese, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, S. E. Hinton’s The OutsidersJudy Blume’s Forever, and Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius.  This list is, of course, by no means complete, so no complaining that I forgot this author or that one.  Some of the books I have listed I have used in various courses or grant work, others are simply favorites.

So, where does Collins sit?  Well, I don’t rightly know yet.  This is hedging of course, and perhaps I will go back over this blog entry and edit it to make some changes to my opinions, but I honestly can’t say immediately that what I think now will be the same even a week from now.  Some explanation is clearly in order here.  I mentioned I read the first two Hunger Games books last summer.  As is often the case, my wife and I end up reading books together so she finished volume one on a plane flight to North Dakota, I picked it up when I arrived and finished it, she went on to buy volumes two and three, etc.  I raced through the first two volumes with some growing “meh” feelings about Katniss, and when I began volume three last August, I reached page 66 (roughly) before setting it aside because I couldn’t stand to hear Katniss whine anymore about her situation, Peeta, how Haymitch sucks, etc.  Ugh.

Collins chose to write the entire series as a first person narrative which can be risky.  There are other dystopian tales that have used this method – Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland for instance.  Orwell’s 1984 is third person, but clearly Winston Smith’s point of view dominates.  M. T. Anderson’s Feed uses first person.  The utopian/dystopian Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy does too.  The problem, as gentle readers will recall, is if you write in first person, and the person you choose to narrate becomes unlikeable, the book can become unbearable.  This is what happened to me sometime towards the end of Catching Fire and certainly in the beginning of Mockingjay – I wanted Katniss Everdeen to be obliterated so we could hear from someone else.

I traveled back from AP US History grading yesterday and reviewed a couple of books I completed over the week, read an article or two in a history magazine, and took the day off from writing to spend time with the family.  This morning, not desiring to go to my office bookshelf, I had a choice of an academic piece on English language learners, a book about wireless communication by Erik Larson, and Mockingjay.  I picked up the latter, noted where I had left off last summer, skimmed the previously read sections and then set about reading the rest of the tale.

Writing this evening, I believe I merely needed a vacation from Katniss and her attitude.  This dystopian novel is not Fahrenheit 451, it is not 1984 or Lord of the Flies.  The book does not horrify in the same way that M. T. Anderson’s Feed  does, because even in all its humor, the world of Feed is horrifyingly believable as a not so distant future.  Mockingjay is not the CW’s Arrow series for that matter, despite a shared interest in archery.  However, Collins has given readers a powerful female protagonist in Katniss, who, despite her perhaps too pitch-perfect adolescent self-centeredness, is someone young men and women can admire.

As for the book or series as a whole I believe there are some interesting elements in Mockingjay that explore moral dilemmas similar to those humans face in day to day existence in the twenty-first century.  For example, despite her clear feelings of being a fighter and disdain for the Capitol, Katniss has a problem with Beetee and Gale’s use of trapping techniques to create attacks.  The two men are designing devices that mirror guerilla warfare and terrorist techniques – initial bombing draws attention, aid, creates victims, and a larger secondary bomb explodes “trapping” more victims.  Katniss drops anger at the world for a moment wondering “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be acceptable to do to another human being” (186).  She raises an interesting question, one to which people who use violence in order to make social change or “fight for freedom” don’t always have a good response.  I am not convinced that Collins is consistent with these types of moral dilemmas throughout the series, although certainly Mockingjay has more than a few.

In the end, I believe this book  disappoints in the same way as the others.  Is Katniss, or any other character deeply conceived and developed?  I see both the characters and the storyline as a bit like theater scenery – there’s a perception of depth, but in the end, it’s an illusion and we are left with a largely one dimensional series of objects.

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