Wednesday, May 14, 2014

California's Valley of Dry Bones

Sheldon Greene, After the Parch

When an aggressive mining company threatens Bran’s bucolic Central California community, his people muster every dollar they have and send him to Irvine to register their claim. But Bran, who’s never ventured far from home, finds a drought-ravaged dystopian terror. Picking his way among high-tech ruins, Bran discovers one inescapable truth in the California Republic of 2075: if rejecting corporate rule makes us revolutionaries, only revolutionaries will reject our corporate overlords.

Indie author Sheldon Greene’s fifth novel distinctly reminds me of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, probably the most influential book from my childhood. The sheltered foundling makes a journey, meets an enigmatic prince and mysteriously vivacious girl, and begins discovering his untapped inward reserves. Though Greene shifts settings from ancient Wales to post-apocalyptic California, the Joseph Campbell-esque mythic import remains excitingly, dangerously intact. Before Bran’s journey ends, his world will be forever transformed.

Almost immediately outside his village, Bran encounters trouble. A journey that should take three days becomes a massive overland slog because roads are impassible and technology is unreliable. Bran relies on help from a traveling illusionist and a feral child, equivalent to Alexander’s Fflewddur Fflam and Gurgi, while realizing he cannot wholly rely on them. Yet he also discovers the painful lie his rural community taught him: despite his expectations, most strangers can be trusted.

Greene, an activist attorney by day, presents a California plagued with violent inequalities. Rural poverty forces farmers to revert to horse-drawn technology, and much of the Central Valley has become salinated and infertile through overuse. Fresno and Los Angeles are criminal cesspits; natural disasters and poverty have reduced the San Fernando Valley to a graveyard. Yet massive corporations, with government connivance, would steal what little California’s poor still have. It’s the One Percent gone mad.

One could read Greene’s novel as allegory for contemporary social issues, and one back-cover quote suggests he certainly intends that. Bran rescues lovely June from indentured servitude, revealing that, without meaningful laws, nothing prevents slavery. (Or with them. June echoes recent news stories of global sex trafficking.) Bran’s company falls in with Nikanor, an itinerant musician who doesn’t share his secrets lightly, but teaches Bran, via hard experience, that life is worth living because some causes are worth dying for.

But Bran’s journey also reflects heroes, from Telemachos to Buddha to Frodo Baggins to Luke Skywalker, who ventured outside their provincial lives and discover life’s grand, terrifying scope. Like Buddha, Bran discovers suffering and death, and cannot sit mute; like Frodo, he discovers that tyranny won’t ignore his village if he remains quiet. Awareness of the world brings responsibilities. Thus Bran risks jail, death, and his community’s existence, to fight California’s oppressive, powerful Standard Corporation.

This book reflects positive trends I’ve seen in recent young adult fiction. Besides Alexander, I also see shades of Moira Young’s Blood Red Road and Maureen McGowan’s The Dust Chronicles. All deal with issues of adulthood, especially the wide gap between real life and grown-ups’ sincere but misguided attempts to keep youth innocent. We expect children to turn eighteen, Bran’s age herein, and magically have the coping tools we’ve persistently denied them their entire childhoods.

Bran understands some truths remarkably well: he’s both industrious and sexually aware. (Greene treats sex frankly, but not gratuitously, using the dictionary to call things what they’re called.) Yet his adults keep him ignorant of history, politics, and basic social literacy; he doesn’t grasp outlanders’ ordinary ways. Bilingualism is perhaps Bran’s best lesson in this book. He discovers he cannot effectively resist the Standard Corporation if he cannot speak their own language back to them.

As an indie author, Greene’s prose sometimes runs rocky. He needs a copy checker to cover his tense shifts, misplaced apostrophe’s, and comma splices; but indie publishers often cannot afford such luxuries. Also Greene, a Bay-area resident, garbles California geography: why would a trip from Templeton to Irvine pass through Fresno? One suspects Greene’s never been that far south. Such hiccups take readers out of the moment, reminding us we’re reading words on a page.

Yet despite momentary glitches, Greene crafts a taut, energetic all-ages thriller. Socially engaged readers and newshounds can appreciate Greene’s allegorical treatment of contemporary issues; science fiction fans can enjoy enjoy a meaty mythic journey. Greene’s conclusion suggests, like Alexander, that more adventures remain for this cadre, because more fights remain worth fighting. If so, I look forward eagerly to Bran’s continuing journey; his unvarnished mythic honesty offers lessons both kids and adults could profitably learn.

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