The Hunger Games
I woke up this morning firmly convinced that a flash flood had swept away most of my town, and that what was left of it was rioting and looting. In that crazy way dreams have, I also knew, without having seen anything, that the rest of the nation had experienced similar disasters.
The U.S. and perhaps the world was gripped in some kind of large-scale apocalypse. New York became a smoking pile of radioactive debris. San Fransisco’s freeways were packed with cars trying to flee some kind of unknown disaster at the center of the city. Plague swept through Denver. Chicago battled zombies.
The world was a mess, perhaps too far gone to recover–and thanks to all the apocalyptic fiction I’ve read, my dream self was reveling in the prospect of future life spent in a hard scrabble for survival. What can I say? I fancy myself some kind of warrior-camper…not the mostly nerdy, glasses-wearing, book-devouring person that I actually am.
My first survival story wasn’t exactly an apocalyptic one. In Hatchet Brian finds himself trapped deep in the Canadian wilderness after the pilot of his small plane has a heart attack. Brian crash lands the plane himself in a lake, and then spends months transforming from a suburban kid to an expert survivalist. He is eventually rescued, but in later years Gary Paulsen returned to the story of Brian and wrote several sequels, including one where Brian is not rescued at the onset of the Canadian winter.
This story was the first story I read with a teenage protagonist who must survive in a world where he is stripped of all the comfort and convenience of modern society. Brian’s only tools during his ordeal are a hatchet–and his wits. The idea that a teenager could survive and even thrive in harsh circumstances became not just one of the fundamental ideas of my youth, but also a guiding light for the types of activities I deliberately engaged in when I hit my mid-teens, years after I’d read Hatchet. I camped and hiked (once for an entire month), and went to survival school and boot camp-type activities for teens. I was on a mission to become like Brian–I wanted to know how he did it.
The Girl Who Owned a City
A bit after Hatchet, I read The Girl Who Owned A City by O.T. Nelson. This protagonist Lisa Nelson and her younger brother, Todd, find themselves in a world where every person over the age of 13 or so has been killed my a plague. The broken world is inhabited only by children, who are left without electricity, running water, heat, or fresh food. Children begin forming gangs, which offer shelter and protection, but rule brutally and threaten other children and their carefully foraged supplies of food. Lisa takes matters into her own hands and organizes her neighborhood into a militia–and then moves everyone she knows into the local high school for better protection.
This book prompted an adventure in my neighborhood that lasted about two years. Other neighborhood children and I gathered maps and other information about the area and planned for the vague day in the future when all the adults would go crazy. We didn’t think that a plague would kill them off, of course, that would be silly. But we knew something was going to happen, and were prepared to step into their shoes and organize the neighborhood when the shit hit the fan.
The Hunger Games
Of course, no book list of apocalyptic fiction would be complete without a mention of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Here is a world where society is more or less intact–but the book takes place post-apocalypse, and the government left in the wake of that unknown and long-ago disaster keeps the population quelled and intimidated by regularly hosting a gladiator-style “game” where the “victor” is the child who manages to outsmart, out-hide, or just kill every other child in the arena.
Enter Katnniss Everdeen, a teenage protagonist who turns the government on its head when she manages to bring two victors out of the arena, against the wishes of the evil and brutal President Snow. The following two books, Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) and Mockingjay, explore the consequences of her actions both at a societal level and a personal one.
I’m a bit old now to be running around the woods with braided hair and a bow and arrow the way Katniss does in The Hunger Games, but plenty of other youngsters have taken her as their hero. Since The Hunger Games has already been made into a movie, with the rest of the trilogy soon to follow, modern Katniss enthusiasts can even buy clothes and equipment that lets them dress up like their hero, right down to the iconic Mockingjay pin and a bow and arrows set.
While on the surface all these books might be considered survival stories, or stories where the protagonist finds himself in a situation that is at least somewhat apocalyptic, I realized recently that my appreciation for these books came not from their apocalyptic nature, but from their stories of children and teenagers controlling their own lives. These are stories where kids must step into adult roles or die. They look after themselves and others, build complex organizations and systems, and manage to succeed even in the face of life-threatening obstacles. They don’t give up or give in, in spite of self doubt and the pressures around them.
These are characters the modern teenager–and even the modern 20-something–would do well to emulate. Our lives aren’t nearly as difficult, for the most part, but the lessons in taking responsibility, hard work, and striving to succeed in spite of the odds are still valuable for many of us.
Of course, you could also take it all literally and start stocking up bottled water and batteries. The world is an uncertain place these days, and a fragile one, too. A little disaster preparedness might be the difference between being the Lisa Nelson of your neighborhood and relying on the dubious generosity and support of others during an emergency.
photo credit: joshwept via photopin cc