Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the storiesworldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

This review will look at Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, the first book in a hugely popular zombie apocalypse series. As is increasingly the case with popular YA novels, a movie is in the works.

There will be spoilers.

Mary has lived inside a fence all her life. The Unconsecrated (zombies) lurk in the woods, and no one knows if there are any other survivors. The Guardians protect the fences, while the Sisterhood indoctrinates the survivors. Police at the walls of the city; church at the walls of their hearts and minds. The community is ordered, purposeful and exasperatingly pragmatic. Humanity has a long road ahead, and purpose rather than passion will pave the way.

Mary is the now-to-be-expected YA rebel. Though her mother told her stories about the ocean, of freedom and goodness and hope beyond the fence, Mary does not believe her. She also does not believe in a God who allowed her father to become one of the Unconsecrated. One day her mother gives up on her own stories and goes to the fence, allowing herself to be bitten so she can join her husband. Mary holds her until she dies.

This loss of parents is a common plot twist in YA literature.  In every single book I have read in the past year and a half, one or both parents are either gone or dead. Every. Single. One. I’m not sure there is a more obvious marker of the yearning in our youth for stability and love in a culture of divorce and abandonment.

In the brief span between death and Unconsecration, Mary's beliefs about God crystalize:
     “ I stop believing in God… I wait for [the Scriptures] to calm me, to infuse me with light and grace. But it does not come, does not fill the hollow ache inside me. I wonder if I will ever feel whole again now that I no longer believe in God.”

At times she longs to be one of the Unconsecrated, to have a life without pain. Eventually, Mary joins the Sisterhood out of obligation and despair. While she is with them, Travis, a boy she likes, is admitted to their hospital. This would be a great opportunity were it not for the fact that he is betrothed to her best friend, Cass, and Mary is betrothed to Travis's brother, Harry. This does not stop them from putting some serious effort into making out as often as possible.
  “Its like waking up and being born and realizing what life is and can be. I drown in him, waves pulling me under and spinning me around as if I am nothing. Worthless, but everything.”
So far, what have we learned? Stolen moments of sexual tension are the means of discovering what life is and can be! And ladies, if you feel worthless, a hot boy will make you feel like you are everything!  Sure, Travis is betraying his brother and Mary her best friend, but honor and integrity are nothing to Mary in the face of passion:
 “I am exhausted but deliriously happy. At night we are in our own universe, we belong only to each other, as if we have thrown off every other obligation... Standing here facing Travis, tasting him on my lips, I decide to throw everything else away.  I will face the wrath of Cass and Harry and Sister Tabitha with Travis by my side… I know I am asking him to betray his brother, to upset the balance of the village, and hurt my best friend. But none of that matters anymore. I am willing to throw it all away for him.” 
That’s called foreshadowing.

One night, a young girl walks into the village through the fenced-in Path – and that should not be possible.  No one is supposed to be alive outside the village. She is promptly taken into custody by the Sisterhood –and then given to the Unconsecrated because, well, the story needed a villain, and what better source than organized religion? Almost immediately, the newly Unconsecrated girl leads the undead in an attack that breaks the fences and overruns the village. Mary, Cass, Travis and Harry along with a few others escape into the Path.

They eventually find another village. There are no Scriptures on the doorposts, no kneeling benches, no tapestries with prayers.  To Mary, it looks like a village that had known freedom. When the Unconsecrated attack, Mary and Travis find shelter apart from the others in a well-provisioned house. During the weeks of what Mary would have expected to be an idyllic situation, a harsh realization sets in:
“I am terrified [Travis] is not enough… I am filled with emptiness… because I cannot bear to tell him the truth… I am still hoping that he can fill the emptiness and the longing and that tomorrow morning I can wake up in his arms and it will be enough.”  
 FYI - he can't. Even Travis sees the writing on the wall. He says to her,
“I wanted to believe we could be together. I wanted to believe we could break our vows and that somehow everything would still be okay… I was going to let passion overwhelm my common sense…. I think that even then I knew I wouldn’t be enough for you, Mary. It’s no longer about the ocean. It’s about you and what you want and need. Would you ever give up the ocean for me?”  
No, she won't, much to the surprise of no one. After all, "It's about you and what you want and need." She has spent the entire book putting herself before everyone and everything else; why change now?

She eventually decides to leave the group and takes off by herself to find the ocean. She has a moment of clarity about what her decisions have cost those around her, and apologizes to Harry for the betrayal and pain. He's not overly receptive. Then she runs out of the Path and into the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

This story is very confused. 

On the one hand, boundaries are a crucial part of the plot. Fences, Guardians, the Sisterhood and social mores have kept death and chaos at bay for 150 years. It is certainly not an ideal life, and some of the people in charge are corrupt, but most of the characters in the story seem content. They love and live in the midst of duty and order. Every day, they snatch life from the jaws of death.

On the other hand, we are supposed to cheer for a protagonist who wants to break all kinds of boundaries.  It is order and commitment that have kept everyone alive; it is because of a carefully constructed Path that Mary can even dream of finding the ocean. Yet there is no sense that this obvious truth carries any weight when it comes to people.  One of the sisters says of Mary, “You place your own desires before those of your friend, before those of your community and God.” Yes, that is most certainly what she does.

I am reminded of a line from Catherine Fischer's Incarceron: “Escape is not enough. It does not answer the questions. It is not Freedom.” Mary may have escaped from the boundaries imposed on her, but she cannot run from herself. She is loose, but she is far from free.

She wants to break rules, disrupt order, and ignore boundaries. That is not heroic. That’s foolish. She left a wake of broken people behind her as she followed her heart. I felt sorry for everyone around her. When she finally took off on her own to find that ocean, I couldn't help but cheer that fact that those who remained behind were freed from her presence. I really didn’t care if she made it or not.

There is something to be said for understanding how to find fulfillment and freedom with the parameters of obligation and duty. There is something to be learned from the beauty of self-sacrifice and community. There is something to admire in characters who are strong because they do what they must do, not merely what they want to do.

Unfortunately, all those things will find a compelling presentation in another story.

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