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The Hunger Games

November 21, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
published by Scholastic Press September 14, 2008

Because of the all the buzz on the interwebs about this book, which seems to be the holy grail of young adult lit, I was afraid I would be disappointed. How could it live up to the hype? However after having read the novel with my husband and older kids, I understand how it earned its fame. It is unique, even in the dystopian literature genre. It is courageous, horrifying — on a raw visceral level — and extremely difficult to put down.

The heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl whose survival, along with the survival of her mother and beloved 12-year-old sister Prim, has always depended on her courage, her wits, and occasionally on sheer luck or the kindness of strangers.

She lives in the Seam, the most impoverished part of District 12, the poorest district in the nation of Panem. Her home lies in the Appalachian region of what was once the United States of America. The Seam is a community of coal miners. Their existence is largely defined by this grueling, dangerous work and by the scarcity of food and other necessities. Since Katniss’s father was killed in a mining accident, she has helped her family survive through foraging and illegal hunting, which is strictly banned by Panem’s repressive government. She hunts, traps, and gathers food with her best friend Gale Hawthorne. She has also been saved by the occasional kindness of others, like Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, who once made sure she had bread for her family.

The story opens on the day of The Hunger Games, a yearly event foisted upon all the districts by Panem’s capitol. It’s glamorous and brutal, an event that struck me as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” meets Survivor.

In case I was not, in fact, the very last person on the planet to read The Hunger Games, I won’t reveal any more about the plot. I will share a few thoughts.

Warning: This section is spoilerish:

At moments, I was strongly reminded of The Lord of the Flies, a book I was forced to read and analyze in English class and have always disliked. However, The Hunger Games has an integral message about human nature that seems much different from the one in The Lord of the Flies. This novel doesn’t deny that when human experience is stripped down to the raw struggle for survival, it is brutal. However, this brutality isn’t the whole picture. Even stronger is the desire not to lose the core of one’s self, one’s essential humanity.

This is articulated by one of the main characters, Peeta Mellark, in Chapter 10:

“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only … I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks … “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster I’m not.” (p. 141)

Even as they’re pushed to commit heinous atrocities, killing each other in order to survive, characters find ways to act on compassion, loyalty and love. This is an essential truth we see every day in the world. People are compelled to fight in wars, and we witness barbaric acts of terrorism. As we watch soul-crushing moments of violence and cruelty, we also see the best side of humanity — acts of courage, kindness and loyalty. Even as we reeled from the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, we saw volunteer rescue workers rushing into the fray and ordinary people risking their lives to rescue strangers. These two sides of human experience — violence and kindness — good and evil — are seamlessly intertwined. I think this is an important message for our children to hear, to help them avoid hopelessness or cynicism.

End of the spoilerish bit

I highly recommend this novel, as a powerful way to inspire thought and discussion, to mature teens and adults. It effectively accomplishes what compelling dystopian fiction does — it takes us into a well-crafted world that is both wildly surreal and disturbingly familiar. Parents and teachers should know that this book is brutal and disturbing; you’ll probably want to preview it before recommending it to kids.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts in detail. All I ask is that if your comment contains spoilers, please include a “Spoiler Warning” at the beginning.

Read More Reviews At:

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