“Mockingjay” does many brave things.
It ends Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy in ways that are inevitable but fly against any number of YA tropes.
It avoids turning Katniss Everdeen into one of those chosen Messiahs that post-apocalyptic novels so prolifically produce, (indeed, it exposes the fabricated falsehood of the very concept).
It resolves its barely-simmering love triangle with a domestic maturity that must have angered many a reader steeped in teen soaps.
More importantly, it refuses to give political pats in the head to anyone who believes in easy stories about Good Little Rebels vs. Big Bad Empires.
After the events on “Catching Fire”, Katniss has become “The Mockingjay”: the symbolic leader whose song inspires the Districts of Panem in the out-and-out war against the Capitol. But being the Mockingjay makes her flap her wings ineffectually. All a Mockingjay does is repeat lines unthinkingly (“make them go viral,” we would say in our own world that is totally not in any way whatsoever like Panem.) Laboriously rehearsing catch-phrases for propaganda spots (“propos”) is what Katniss is asked to do as a Rebel. A “televised puppet,” she calls herself.
It turns out that the manicured poses of the Rebellion are virtually indistinguishable from the manicured poses of the Establishment.
I had originally assumed that Panem was a homonym for Pan-Am, but it turns out to be, in this future world that has a Latinate past, short for “Panem et Circenses.” That is, “Bread and Circus,” as in “keep them fed and entertained and they’ll give up political responsibility and be easy to control.” (It’s interesting, then, that Peeta is a baker, and his initial bread offering to Katniss is frequently invoked.) The phrase comes from Juvenal’s Satires: at a time of decaying civic duty in the Roman Empire, it wasn’t unusual for a political candidate to buy a vote by giving out free wheat to citizens, or free passes to the mauling of a Christian at the Coliseum. (You’re right: it makes zero sense for the Capitol to have adopted that name: was You’reAllSlavia taken?)
Collins’ trilogy is the peak of a wave of worried Decline-of-the-American-Empire literature, but whereas many of those novels seem to wait with shotguns happily cocked for the Zombie Apocalypse (TM), Collins is keenly aware that there ARE no zombies, that it’s always real human beings who suffer and starve and die when the Empire falls… very often children. “The Hunger Games” is an urgent anti-war plea, and it is tinged with loss.
I said before that I worried about the way Katniss is denied power repeatedly even as she “seems” to act like a hero. Everything she does serves someone else’s purpose. Events she can’t control constantly interfere with her actions. But it was my mistake to jot that down on the “minus” column: what makes “Mockingjay” so subversive, and what so few people notice, is that here is a young woman who is robbed of heroism by the machinations of war.
We seem to have an endless appetite for stories about characters who “empower themselves,” (which only begins to suggest how powerless most of us feel). “Mockingjay” is a very rare book: one where the heroine gets tossed about by shifting political wings, learns that heroism and power are illusions, and that the best, the ONLY hope we have of saving the world, is teaching our children that human life is not a plaything.
SPOILER, if you couldn’t guess from the above:
OMG Pee-Niss totally DO IT and have babies!!!
Here’s a fitting quote by Juvenal: “A child is owed the greatest respect; if you ever have anything disgraceful in mind, think of your sons and daughters in their tender years.”
RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! Real? Real!
POST-SCRIPT: Talking about song birds, Susanna Hoffs (of Bangles fame) has had a quiet, glorious second career as a cover girl/older lady, reworking the classics with Matthew Sweet. There’s been three albums of “Under the Covers,” and they’re always a fun mix. Here’s Susanna and Matthew, honoring the Beatles with “And Your Bird Can Sing”.