what i'm reading: four youth books and some kind-of spoilers

Flight is a thought-provoking short novel by one of my favourite youth writers, Sherman Alexie.

The main character in Flight, a Native American boy who goes by the derisive nickname Zits, is a troubled soul with a long history of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He seems to be on the brink of a major transition, either going off the deep end or beginning the long climb back.

I don't know how to write about this book without spoiling it. So if you're like me, and you don't like to know anything about a book before you begin, and you like a book to reveal itself exactly as the author intended, skip to the next book right now.

Zits finds himself inexplicably inhabiting the bodies and minds of different people in the history of his family and his people. He doesn't choose this, and he has no control of it, but Zits finds himself quite literally walking in the shoes of his fellow man.

The boy's journey into other people's lives takes him to some watershed moments. He travels to Little Bighorn, where an encampment of Indians are waiting for General Custer to make that last stand. He inhabits the body of an FBI agent who kills radical Indians. Zits becomes the father he never knew, being abused and belittled by his own father. And so on.

For me, this book was all about empathy, that crucial and too-often missing process, the one that leads to compassion. But for the author, I think, the book is a vision of revenge, an endless cycle of hurt for hurt. I had a problem with the simplistic politics that views an Indian raid on a settler camp, an invasion of another country by the United States, and a terrorist attack on the United States, all as expressions of revenge. But as an exercise in empathy, the book works for me.

Besides, I believe I also discovered that Sherman Alexie supports war resisters. From the discussion questions in the back of the book:
What is the reward of a kind heart in Small Saint? What war stories like this can you remember? Refusal to commit violence is punished as treason. Are we hearing analogous stories about members of the US military who go AWOL or refuse to serve?

* * * *

Lois Lowry's The Giver is another book that is difficult not to spoil. The book takes place in a seemingly utopian future, the dark side of which is revealed a bit at a time.

Jonas lives in a world without war, without hunger, without conflict. It is also a world without individual freedom or choice of any kind, a world without art or music - without hate, but also without love. Communities have adopted The Sameness, and this genetically modified future has brought them some obvious gifts and many hidden evils.

There are some simple and clear messages in The Giver. Without pain, we cannot truly appreciate pleasure. In order to experience love, we will always know loss, because we are mortal. In order to live fully, to be fully human, we need the entire range of human experience. But there are some complex and contradictory messages as well.

As I read this book, I found myself considering the political implications, my mind flip-flopping back and forth from agreement to disagreement. Is this an anti-government message? Is it anti-fascist, or perhaps anti-socialist? Is Lowry implying that a society without hunger and want must be a society without choice? Is she saying that if we were to abolish war, we would also surrender the joys of music and art? That if a society seeks to conquer evils such as child abuse and random violence, it must also give up vitality and joy? And if that's true, should we give up on trying to better human society? And so on.

It was very thought-provoking! Heavy themes, but a quick and easy read. Well done, but I'm not eager to see the upcoming movie.

* * * *

Since I wrote about The Hunger Games and briefly about Catching Fire, I felt I should complete the cycle and mention that I did read Mockingjay, the final book in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series. Unlike most of the young readers I've spoken to, I liked it very much.

Mockingjay is a book about the harsh reality of war; one could even call it an anti-war book. It offers poverty, oppression, starvation, and crippling mental illness as the guaranteed outcomes of war, contrasted with the duplicity, hypocrisy, and utter selfishness of those who plan and profit by those wars.

This book continues to explore the limits of loyalty, especially in the face of moral ambiguity, which, we discover, is the only kind of morality on offer. All The Hunger Games books deal with questions of reality - what is real, what is fiction - but Mockingjay takes these issues much further, always asking, "Real or not real?"

I liked that the book gives us hope. But I wanted to trust and love the revolution. I wanted Katniss to be able to trust and love the revolution, too.

* * * *

Alexie is a Native American, and his work always explores issues of growing up Indian in 21st Century North America. But his work is also about growing up, and fitting in, and finding your place in the world. It is specific, about Indians. And it's universal, about all of us.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the National Book Award in 2007, is a hilarious and heartbreaking look inside the world of one teenage boy. He must navigate the constant conflict between being true to himself and trying to reach his own potential, and his loyalty to his group. This would be a lot easier if his group wasn't usually drinking themselves to death and wasting their entire lives, and if being true to himself didn't mean being the only Indian and the only poor kid in a school for rich white kids.

There are who-knows-how-many books out there told in breezy conversational, diary style. To me, most sound stilted and inauthentic. This was Alexie's first young-adult novel - and he absolutely nailed it.

If you are a fan of Roddy Doyle, as I am, Absolutely True Adventures may remind you of his Barrytown books. Alexie has that same uncanny ability to tackle extremely serious subjects in a humourous way.

Added incentive to read this book: it is always on the most-challenged list and has been banned from many school libraries.

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