Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Living Girl on the Dying Earth

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 18
Moira Young, Blood Red Road

When armed horsemen kill her father and kidnap her brother, teenage Saba must abandon the only home she’s known to rescue her surviving kin from an unknown fate. But she quickly learns that Pa wasn’t keeping her isolated, he was protecting her from a world grown bleak and savage. Now, among the ruins of skyscrapers and demolished flying machines, Saba must seize her adult identity to reclaim her family.

Audiences can read Moira Young’s debut novel as an exciting, packed apocalyptic teen adventure where nothing is certain and adversity tests youth to their limits. Or we can unpack it like literature. Like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, Young’s Saba gets adulthood thrust upon her, with the choices adults face: will she prefer the easy passivity of violence and power, or become truly human, with the sacrifices humanity entails?

Too often, grown-ups isolate their young ’uns from the real world, as Pa does, protecting his children from violence, while they grow increasingly antsy about independent, adult vocations. Childhood becomes an albatross on the cusp of adulthood. Only when real life intrudes—when representatives of adulthood ride in guns a-blazin, and (literally or figuratively) kill the parents—do youth have the opportunity to discover what they’re for.

Everything that happens to Saba thereafter embodies adulthood’s encroachment on the peace of youth. Eventually, we find we have to trust people, even when people don’t always prove themselves trustworthy. We have to fight our way out of situations, no matter how deeply we believe in peace and harmony. And people who would exercise power over us, people who would proclaim themselves King, somehow interrupt our common humanity.

Young forces Saba into an intriguing duality. Sold into the slavery of failing humanity’s glatiatorial bloodsports, she must have Nietzsche's “will to power,” and persevere when others will bring her down. Her willingness to fight, even when others will suffer for her victory, even when she knows her preservation inevitably means others’ downfall, makes her into a true dark antihero, a person of the modern age.

But modernity contains the seeds of its own downfall: it’s built on flimsy foundations that will burn bright when the right people strike the spark. As Saba becomes the leader she needs to be, she finds that power means setting aside her own prerogatives. Hostility gives way to trust, and trust paves the road to revolution. If Saba wants to free the slaves and challenge the King in his domain, she cannot do so alone.

So perhaps she’s not the true Nietzschean hero after all. Perhaps she really represents how chest-thumping modernists build a house predicated on rules and order, assuming they can shackle nature and control the elements. When Saba and her heroines overcome that false promise, when they assert the natural freedom of all people, they reclaim humanity’s true identity, with all the anarchic unpredictability that entails.

Mercifully, Young doesn’t attempt to resolve this duality. To become herself, Saba must confront the impediments and embrace the opportunities we all have, unshackled by religion or culture that have grown bloated in their seniority. She presents adulthood as an essentially agnostic domain, free from the author’s quasi-divine intervention. Not for nothing do Young’s supporting characters have pre-Christian names like Lugh, Epona, and Maev.

Saba also learns that she cannot fight her wars alone. Repeatedly, she dismisses others and tries to stand alone, an übermensch bestriding the earth, but others bring skills, vision and encouragement that she needs. She finds wholeness not as some lone beacon, immune to human influence; she becomes whole, becomes a leader, and has strength to rescue her brother only when she learns to integrate herself with the larger system.

Power, then, derives not from Saba’s will to dominate. She doesn’t lead so she can rule; she leads so she can accomplish something worthwhile. Whether that means rescuing her brother, or challenging the King whose means of rule have subjugated the land, she has the choice: she can dominate others, or she can lead them. She chooses to lead. And this book makes it clear that this isn’t the easy choice.

Hemingway wrote that we come of age not by our birthdays, but when we accept life’s challenges. In Saba, Young externalizes the struggles of adulthood. Unburdened and unguided, our heroine faces heightened versions of the provocations everyone endures, and must, like us, choose her mature identity. Whether we’re Young’s intended teen audience, or adults crushed by modernity, this book invites us to make our choices with her.

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