Friday, March 16, 2012

Lemony Snicket meets The Hunger Games

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”– Madeleine L’Engle

I've had an essay brooding in my mind for months now, and it makes me wish I was in university taking a YA lit course so that I could actually explore these themes in a real and extended way. Instead, please bear with my semi-scattered thoughts (let's blame the unseasonably warm weather, shall we?) and linked quotations from better minds than mine.

If I were writing a real essay, my rough draft would start something like this: The purpose of this essay is to explore the ways in which the young adult novels A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Hunger Games are ultimately hopeful and life-affirming, although in unconventional and very different ways.

First, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Snicket's alter ego, Daniel Handler, is the son of a Holocaust survivor, who grew up hearing horror stories his father could not contain. This darkness is very clear in his series of 13 books, each of which makes constant tongue-in-cheek warnings to the reader to put the books down if they want to read something uplifting -- “If you are interested in happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.” This is not false advertising: truth be told, almost nothing good does happen to the three sibling protagonists, from the initial fire that leaves them orphans to the final moments sailing off into an uncertain future alone. Adults betray them whether by intent or foolishness. Bad thing after relentless bad thing happens to them.

A big question in the Lemony Snicket books is how one can fight evil without becoming evil oneself.

So, where's the hope, you ask? YA author Madeleine L'Engle talks of writing, especially for young people. She says, “We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”

The light in the darkness for the Baudelaire children is very small, but very real. As Lemony Snicket himself writes elsewhere, “Sometimes even in most unfortunate of lives there will occur a moment or two of good.” But perhaps what we need, in order to have hope, is just one small light, defiant against the darkness. And here it where it occurs for the three Baudelaires: “It dawned on them that unlike Aunt Josephine, who had lived up in that house, sad and alone, the three children had one another for comfort and support over the course of their miserable lives. And while this did not make them feel entirely safe, or entirely happy, it made them feel appreciative. They leaned up against one another appreciatively, and small smiles appeared on their damp and anxious faces. They had each other. I'm not sure that 'The Beaudelaires had each other' is the moral of this story, but to the three siblings it was enough. To have each other in the midst of their unfortunate lives felt like having a sailboat in the middle of a hurricane, and to the Beaudelaire orphans this felt very fortunate indeed.” (Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window)

Speaking of a small light, defiant against the darkness, that would be an apt description of the heroine of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen. The darkness in these dystopian novels is systemic, political and pervasive: in order to maintain power, children from the colonies are randomly selected to fight to the death in a televised broadcast to the entire nation.

The same question -- about fighting evil without becoming evil -- arises in this series as well. What fascinated me most about The Hunger Games is the fact that, while the books may appear to be ultraviolent, they are actually radically antiviolence, particularly the first book. The Baudelaires may fight mysterious forces to stay alive, but the task forced upon Katniss is to essentially subvert a rotten system without being destroyed by it, in one way or another.

Another quotation, this one from Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia among other wonders. She says, "I will not take a young reader through a story and in the end abandon him. That is, I will not write a book that closes in despair. I cannot, will not, withhold from my young readers the harsh realities of human hunger and suffering and loss, but neither will I neglect to plant that stubborn seed of hope that has enabled our race to outlast wars and famines and the destruction of death."

While there might be argument about the later books in the series, the first of The Hunger Games trilogy -- the one that's coming out in theatres in 36 hours!! -- illustrates Paterson's philosophy well. These too are dark books, and darker still because of the shiny parts -- the televised, glamorized violence that holds an uncomfortable mirror up to our own all-too-real dystopian world. (Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games says the genesis of the series came when she was flipping back and forth between television channels, some televising the various US wars around the world and others offering reality television.)

At the heart of these books too are a set of siblings whose love for one another is sacrificial and transformative. Such siblings and friends, companions along the way, make the difference between hope and despair.

Which brings me full circle to Lemony Snicket, and one last quote:

“It is a miracle if you can find true friends, and it is a miracle if you have enough food to eat, and it is a miracle if you get to spend your days and evenings doing whatever it is you like to do, and the holiday season - like all the other seasons - is a good time not only to tell stories of miracles, but to think about the miracles in your own life, and to be grateful for them, and that's the end of this particular story.”

It's not the traditional happily ever after, but it'll do. It'll do.

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