Monday, 1 April 2013

Week Thirteen - Jeanette

Gregor: The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins (2003-7)
Recommended by Lizzie

Gregor looked up into the inky black sky and then realised that, of course, there was no sky.

Welcome to the Underland, situated miles and miles below the earth’s crust. Eleven-year-old New Yorker Gregor falls through a grate in his apartment block’s laundry room one day and finds himself there. Among the Underland’s bats, rats, mice, spiders, ants, cockroaches, scorpions and moles – all gigantic versions of their Overland cousins – are the humans, the Underlanders. Descended from a group of English settlers in the seventeenth century, these people have physically and culturally evolved to cope with the lack of light and the other conditions underground, thus becoming mutant versions of ‘Overland’ humans.

So far, so children’s fantasy literature (albeit with a squirt of H.G. Wells for good measure). But I knew there’d be more...

After all, this was Lizzie’s recommendation: she is one of the smartest, most grounded ladies that Sheffield has ever seen. Lizzie was originally a work colleague. She and I had two major interests in common: music (and especially the role of women in music) and word games. Lizzie once got so good at Scramble her score was top ten IN THE WORLD.

So far, so acquaintance (albeit with a squirt of P.J. Harvey for good measure). But I knew there’d be more…

After I left that job, Lizzie and I stayed friends; when she moved away from Sheffield, settling in Exeter, I went down to visit her. I was fresh from writing Seasons They Change and skittish of mind, and she had terrible toothache, but nevertheless it was simply lovely. And then there was the Green Man Festival in 2011: we sat in the sun, playing Scrabble, while folk music played in the background. A perfect storm of our shared loves.

Lizzie asked if it’d be alright to recommend a children’s book. I said of course it would. She then asked if it’d be alright to recommend five children’s books. Hence Gregor: The Underland Chronicles, which comprises Gregor The Overlander, Gregor And The Prophecy Of Bane, Gregor And The Curse Of The Warmbloods, Gregor And The Marks Of Secret and Gregor And The Code Of Claw.

This quintet offers up some of the most interesting – and downright dismal – themes I’ve ever encountered in children’s literature. Where to start? How about ethnic cleansing? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Colonial theft? State-based religious fundamentalism? Or good old-fashioned child poverty?

The Underland is not a stable place, as Gregor soon discovers. The humans – the colonists – made sure of that when they bagged the best land for themselves. For centuries they have lived uneasily alongside the other species, often explicitly oppressing them, and finding justification for their superiority in a series of prophecies. The underground city of Regalia shows off all the humans have achieved but, to others, it is an offensive symbol of their arrogance. Prime among the pissed-off are the rats.

The rats tend to stick to random acts of violence against individual humans until they gain a new leader, a ferocious white rat known as the Bane (and the power behind his throne, the eloquent Twirltongue). In the first half of the Chronicles, Collins expertly shows how relations between rats and humans degenerate and a full-scale war escalates. And, as in real-life war, it’s not simply (or even mainly) about show-stopping battles. For instance, the humans cut off the rats’ access to the river where their main food source, fish, is located. They also deny the rats access to medicine when a deadly bloodborne virus sweeps through the Underland.

The rats, for their part, abuse a weaker species: the mice (the ‘nibblers’). Under the Bane’s command, the rats commit vast acts of atrocity against them, including a mass gas poisoning.

The mice were rolling on the ground, pawing at the air, at their necks, their bodies wracked with terrible spasms. ‘They can’t breathe! They’re suffocating!’

This industrial-scale massacre of the mice has obvious parallels with the Nazi death camps, something Ripred – a rat whose allegiances are often ambiguous, but who has better relations with the humans – points out.

‘I thought they would starve the nibblers, attempt to drown them perhaps. But this… this has no precedent,’ said Nike.
      ‘This has too much precedent,’ said Ripred, grimly.      

Although the militaristic matter in these books is strong – both in the quality sense, and in the explicitness sense – equally interesting for an adult reader is the treatment of disability and illness, often as a result of the conflict. Collins doesn’t shy away from brutal descriptions of injury but, unusually, she also gives room to how that person’s subsequent life is affected. Mareth, a famous fighter, loses a leg in the third book: but that is not the last we see of him.

The soldier stood in the centre of the field, leaning on a crutch. The doctors had fashioned a prosthetic device made of fishbone and leather for his missing leg, but he was still in the process of learning to use it.

There is also the impact on mental health. Gregor’s father was kept as a prisoner of war and, on his return overland, experiences tremors, hallucinations, nightmares, and depression. He retreats from society and is unable to work. The loss of his income, combined with medical bills, means Gregor’s family (only just above the breadline anyway) is thrown into real destitution. The grinding nature of this – a mother who has to constantly work at low-paid jobs because she is desperate for any work, the kids waking up never knowing if there’ll be enough food to last through the day, the wearing of outdoor clothes indoors and still feeling constantly cold… it’s told as unflinchingly as any blood-drenched Underland battle is.

But yet, despite all these sophisticated ideas, there’s no sense that Collins is writing primarily for adults. Her style is direct and clear and, often, she will gently explain a word or idea if she feels her young reader may not be familiar with it. This never feels patronising; rather, she wants to make sure that the dynamics and feelings she’s exploring are well-understood.

I know many people who don’t agree with adults reading children’s books on principle. I’m not among them, but I do think that if you’re an adult you should choose these books carefully. For instance, last year, I re-read a couple of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books. They disappointed me; I found little more than simple nostalgia. And then I straightened myself out, and said ‘of course they should disappoint me. I’m not eleven any more.’

Gregor: The Underland Chronicles is different. I can well believe that those who read it at the age of eleven - perhaps the ones whose charming fan art (like above) litters the internet - can return to it ten, twenty, fifty years later and find far more than a wallow in their childhood. It’s a powerful work, dense with ideas about the savagery of war and its real impact on people’s lives. And that, sadly, is always relevant.