Friday, April 4, 2014

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (Hunger Games Series #3)  Whew – that was intense!  
Mockingjay is the third book in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy that started with The Hunger Games and continued in Catching Fire.  I liked the first book and loved the second.  After turning the last page of this third book I just sat still for a moment and released the breath I hadn't realized I was holding.  This is one of the best series I've ever read that got better and better with each book.  

For anyone who hasn't read or seen any of the books in this trilogy, you may want to stop reading here as there are spoilers ahead.  

This is series that really has to be read in order.  At the center is Katniss Everdeen, a resident of District 12 in the nation of Panem which is a not too distant future version of the United States.  The country has been divided into twelve districts plus the Capitol. The most anticipated (by the Capitol) and dreaded (by the districts) event of the year is the Hunger Games where each district is forced to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 17 to compete to the death in an arena full of horrors.  The children, called tributes perhaps in an attempt to dehumanize them and make it easier to watch them die, must kill each other or be killed.  Refusing to engage in the game is not an option as the game maker has created a variety of incentives to motivate them, and if that doesn’t work, to kill them.  These incentives include poisoned food, mutated animals programmed to rip a body to shreds, and the simulated screams of loved ones.

District 12 is one of the poorer districts.  Even without the Games life in District 12 would still be harsh.  Katniss’s life prior to the Games demonstrates this.  After her father died in a coal mining accident and her mother fell into a deep depression, Katniss was forced to grow up quickly and find a way to feed her mother and younger sister Primrose or Prim.  Remembering what her father taught her about hunting, Katniss sneaks off into the woods that borders her district and hunts for game she can feed to her family or trade in the district’s black market.  Her time in the woods is also where Katniss cements her relationship with her best friend Gale, another kid trying to support his family.  

Children are picked for the Hunger Games through a lottery system.  At the 74th lottery Prim's name is called.  Without thinking twice Katniss volunteers to take her little sister’s place.  Also picked is Peeta, a baker’s son. When they were little Peeta gave Katniss bread when she was starving.  Aside from that the two had never really spoken to one another before finding themselves on a train bound for the Capitol and the Games.  

In the 74 years of the Games there has ever only been one victor from District 12 – Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor.  No one really expects Peeta to survive, not even Peeta himself.  In some districts children are trained from a young age in preparation for the Games.  District 12 cannot afford such training. Katniss hasn’t had any more training than Peeta but with her archery and hunting skills she stands a fighting chance, all be it ever so slim.

Long story short, Katniss wins the 74th Hunger Games.  Along the way she befriends and mourns a fellow tribute named Rue.  In a game that is supposed to be the ultimate in brutality and bloodlust, the act of mourning over Rue’s dead body is an unanticipated reminder of the humanity of the children people are watching die on their TV.  When Katniss and Peeta are the last two survivors in the Games the Capitol expects them to fight each other to the death.  Instead, Katniss reveals a handful of poisonous berries and says that they either die or live together.  For the first time ever there are two victors and Panem's President Snow is not happy.  The rebellion already existed.  How could it not in a world where parents are forced to watch their children be killed or become killers?  Katniss’s display of compassion for fellow tributes reminds people that something else is possible, that life could be different.  Without meaning to, Katniss has fanned the flames of the small but growing rebellion.

In an effort to snuff out the embers of the rebellion, the Capitol announces that for the 75th Games, victors from past games will be forced to relive their nightmares by once again competing in the Games.  Peeta, Katniss are joined by past victors Beetee, Finnick, and others.  It is pretty clear that President Snow hopes Katniss doesn’t make it out alive.  Snow's hopes are dashed when Katniss finds a weakness in the structure in which the games are held.  Seconds after destroying the arena a hovercraft from District 13 appears overhead.  Katniss, Beetee and Finnick are rescued, but it can’t get to the others in time.  

District 13 is the rebel district that broke away from Panem.  Most of Panem's citizens think it was destroyed.  They don't know that the Capitol and Panem have long been at odds.  Some time in the past the warring factions agreed to a cease fire reminiscent of the Cold War: peace through mutually assured destruction. Both the Capitol and District 13 have nuclear weapons.

What makes Katniss both the best and worst leader of a revolution is that she lacks political acumen and often acts without thinking.  Peeta is supposed to the sensitive one but it is Katniss who feels every death.  She never intended to offend, let alone overthrow, the Capitol government.  She simply wanted to live and make it back home to her family with as low a body count as possible.  But the world is bigger than Katniss and while she may not see the bigger picture, there are others who can.  In Catching Fire President Snow needs Katniss to calm people down.  When that fails, he needs her dead.  The rebel government, led by President Coin, needs her to be the Mockingjay, the symbol of hope that inspires and unites Panem’s citizens in a fight against the Capitol and Snow.  

One of the things Collins does well in this trilogy is examine the use of media and perception.  In District 13 Katniss’s primary job is to perform in a series of televised propaganda pieces.  She comforts the wounded, gives fiery speeches, and shoots her bow and arrows, all with a camera crew in tow.  With Katniss in the nest of the rebels, Snow forces Peeta to perform in a similar fashion.  Another thing I liked about the trilogy is that although it is clear who the “good” guys are, the good guys are not morally perfect.  District 13 has strict rules and even an infraction liking taking an extra piece of bread at dinner is punished severely.  District 13 develops new weapons and traps aimed at killing more effectively.  Katniss is appalled even as she realizes that given the chance President Snow would spare her no mercy.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to call the rebels the “better” guys rather than the good guys. 

The clearest example of this moral ambiguity is the rebel leader President Coin.  Proving that female leaders can be just as vicious and brutal as their male counterparts, after the rebels have won the war Coin suggests holding one final Hunger Games, this time featuring children from the Capitol.  Parents from the Capitol have never had to see their children compete to the death the way parents in other districts have. Further, once Katniss has served her purpose of uniting the districts against the Capitol, she becomes a threat to Coin.  As Haymitch explains, Katniss is the symbol of the rebellion.  Once the war is over Katniss will be influential in the new government, if only to endorse its new leader, and Coin isn't so sure she would be the one Katniss would choose.  President Snow is a monster but I couldn’t help wonder how but question if a government led by President Coin would be that different or better.  She might only be the lesser of two evils.

I really appreciated the ending of Mockingjay, mostly because is not a Hollywood happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after.  It was a fitting end to the series. What I remember most about The Hunger Games was the violence.  Catching Fire focused on the mounting pressure on Katniss.  Mockingjay was less about the physical and more about the psychological impact of war and violence.  Many of the main characters take a psychological beating in Mockingjay. With two trips to the Hunger Games arena and countless other traumas under her belt, Katniss sees to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as Mockingjay begins.  After Katniss is rescued from the Games arena Peeta is left to suffer the wrath of President Snow whose methods are not confined to physical torture.  The truth behind Finnick's playboy reputation is revealed.  There is one gut punching story after another and Collins manages to weave it all in while still delivering an action packed story.  I wonder what she is going to write next.


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