Todd is the last boy of Prentisstown, the remains of a colony founded twenty years before by a religious group wanting to found their own Eden. Instead, they found a war with the natives, a germ making the animals talk, and a germ that broadcasts the men’s thoughts to all around them. The all-male society of Prentisstown is nasty and brutish, though not necessarily short, as Todd waits for the birthday (thirteen, though the years are a different length, so he’s about fourteen by our count) that will make him a man.
Except one month before that day, he has to leave. Now. Even though he knows – he knows – that there’s nothing outside Prentisstown. He doesn’t understand when Ben and Cillian, the men who raised him, have a bag packed and ready to go, why it has a book even though all the books were burned years before, why they’re telling him to go. Now. But he goes.
I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. On the plus side, it’s gripping; it’s a Subway Risk¹; there’s some serious character development; it avoids the romantic pratfalls of too many YA novels; it deals with heavy issues well; and it’s the first of an unknown number, and bloody hell do I want to know what happens next.
On the other hand, the writing—
obnoxious, not least because it persists in doing that through the action scenes. Trying to create a sense of breathlessness; failing. It’s written in “uneducated boy-voice” (not that the author is uneducated; the narrator is uneducated), which very much fits the character, but made it very hard for me to get into. I actually stopped reading the first time I tried, at about 20 pages; since I didn’t get to the magic fifty pages, I did restart, and after slogging through the first thirty or so, was then unable to put it down. The spelling, however, bothered me. It is well established that Todd is uneducated; therefore the interesting grammar and persistent use of the word “ain’t” are completely fitting. However, it is firmly established that Todd can’t read or write. Therefore, he can’t actually be writing the narrative we’re reading and wouldn’t be able to tell correct spelling from a horse’s ass. Therefore, there is no need to misspell every word greater than three syllables. It doesn’t add to the sense of authenticity, it’s just annoying.
Then there’s Todd.
I hate it when characters are overly obtuse, when they’re idiots who can’t see what’s right in front of their faces. I will admit that sometimes it works – I thought a certain amount of obliviousness worked in The Last of the High Kings, but my dad disagreed; my mom thought it worked in Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons, but I disagreed. And you may disagree with me on whether or not it works in this case, but it would be hard to argue that Todd isn’t an effing idiot. When you are sent away from the only home you’ve ever known, when you suddenly learn horrible things about your community, when you realize that you’re hated, maybe you should, y’know, listen when people try to explain what’s going on. Yes, it’s hard to overcome knee-jerk reactions and rethink everything you’ve ever been taught; yes, it’s not easy to admit ignorance; yes, the desire to defend your family is strong; but at some point, maybe the first time someone tries to kill you, doesn’t the need to know take over? I really think so. And for much the same reason I hate embarrassment humor, I hate watching characters dig themselves into holes of sheer stupidity.
And then there’s the song. Todd is fixated on a song his guardian – and, it turns out, his mother – used to sing to him. He uses the song to keep him going. The title of book is derived from the song. It’s really, really, central.
The song is “Early One Morning,”, an old English folk song. It’s one I know — you can’t be a folk dancer without some folk songs worming their way into your consciousness. Plus, there’s an English country dance to the tune, though the lyrics are optional when you’re dancing. It’s one of the many folk songs about a girl being seduced and then left by her seducer. It’s less explicit than many such songs, especially in some versions (all folk songs have multiple versions), but it’s still pretty clear that that’s what’s going on. Therefore, in my head, it’s in the category Dirty Folk Songs.
So it’s really weird to have it show up as a song being sung to babies, down one generation to the next. As a song being used a promise: “And it’s a sad song, Todd, but it’s also a promise. I’ll never deceive you and I’ll never leave you and I promise you this so you can one day promise it to others and know that it’s true.”²
No. I’m sorry, but no. Not even getting into the Pie-Crust Promise³ issue, it’s about a man breaking his promise. In some versions, it’s about a woman worried that he’ll go on to seduce and leave more women after her. In a world with a very disturbing history involving men and women. I am so completely baffled by this choice. Seriously. Baffled.
I quibble and pick at details like this because there’s so much that’s really good about that book, and it frustrates me to see its potential not quite realized. It’s a very good book, reflecting on power, self-control, gender, society, social models, how we define ourselves (pair it with Graceling for a nice study of how our capacity for violence interacts with identity), trust, and growing up and coming of age. And did I mention the really wanting to know what happens next?
¹A book that causes one to miss, or nearly miss, one’s subway, train, or bus station or stop. Reader beware.
³From Mary Poppins, a promise that’s “easily made, easily broken.”