Saturday, September 08, 2018

20. The Secret under my Skin by Janet McNaughton

Another find from the hospital haul, The Secret under my Skin hit upon several of my areas of interest: young adult dystopic fiction pre-Hunger Games written by a woman.  I was not disappointed.  On the contrary, this reinforced my belief that the 80 and 90s (and in this case as late as 2000) produced quite a few interesting works in this genre that are in many ways superior to today's boom of series (I have only read Hunger Games; the rest of this judgement is based on movie trailers so take that for what it's worth).

This book takes place in 2354 long after environmental degradation brought civilization down.  Society is now in a semi-feudal state, governed (and dictated) by an authority called the Commission who uses the fear of technology and environmental dangers to maintain its control.  The heroine is a young girl called Blay who starts out in a work camp where kids are forced to mine ancient dumps to find resources.  We learn that she was orphaned at 2 during the "Technocaust" an event where the Commission and fearful citizens rounded up anybody who was using technology or rational knowledge and put them in concentration camps.  Blay is chosen to be the assistant to the Bio-Indicator, a young person who is especially sensitive to radioactivity or pollution and now plays a ceremonial role in ensuring that places are not toxic.  She is then brought into the household that is training the Bio-Indicator and from there discovers a new world of resistance as well as conflict with the spoiled, frightened Bio-Indicator.

The big difference between this period of YAPA and post Hunger Games is that the earlier books usually finish in a single book or two (the Tripods being the exception).  That is good and bad.  This book is a really great read and the world is revealed at just the right pacing up until the final act, when the narrative need to come to a conclusion quite quickly reveals the big picture as well as making major societal changes in a few pages.  I am glad that it is a single book, but honestly, this could have very easily been turned into a trilogy or even a series*.  It would have allowed much more depth and steadier, more involving pacing.

I can't really fault the author for what was most likely a publishing constraint.  This book is still more nuanced and more moving than The Hunger Games and even Harry Potter.  It doesn't need some excessive and simplistic bad individual, nor does it need histrionic individual rivalries.  The characters are real and complex and the challenges of adolescence and the struggle of living without love and family are movingly and realistically portrayed.  The geography and the local culture are compelling and mysterious (I think this is supposed to be somewhere in a real location in Ontario**) and the conflict between repressive ignorance and democratic knowledge are very relevant today.  This was a really good book and I will be keeping it for my daughter.

*Addendum 1: there is a sequel: The Raintree Rebellion.  Added to the list.
**Addendum:  totally wrong about that, it's actually a place in Newfoundland!

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