18 March 2008

The Prophet of Yonwood

Well, here we are: the third (or first, depending on how you look at it) volume of Jeanne DuPrau's Ember trilogy for readers on the threshold of adulthood. (If you're wondering what I'm talking about, refer back to here and here.) I actually read the book some time ago, but other events - and discussion with others about the books themselves - have filled the weeks between.

The Prophet of Yonwood is a different book from the other two, in several ways. Its placement at the end of the sequence is well judged, though it could perfectly well be read first if that was how you encountered it.

First of all, although it provides an explanation for that journal which Lina and Doon found in the cave at the end of The city of Ember, and for the existence of Ember itself, most of the narrative is set fifty years earlier. You are about three hundred years or so before the events of the other two books. It is here and now, in a clearly (and chillingly) recognisable present day.

Second (an inevitable consequence of the first), the characters are different. In place of Lina we have Nickie, eleven years old, grappling with the moral, intellectual and practical dilemmas of adulthood and the adult world. Some (but not all) of Doon's rôle is filled by the slightly older Grover. Echoes of the future Lizzie Briscoe can be found in Amanda Stokes.

Third, again following the transfer to a current time setting, allegorical reference has gained a sharper edge. We are no longer presented with issues in the mythic form of imaginary societies but as lightly veiled versions of realities which we can, as we glance up from the page, see around us.

Nickie comes as an outsider to the small town America community of Yonwood at a time of national tension. There is an atmosphere of paranoia, of jumping at shadows. The United States is in a countdown to war, over an ultimatum around demands which we never hear spelled out. As she wrestles with events, principles and conscience on her smaller stage, the international clock ticks a metronomic echo in the background.

Throughout the trilogy, there has been an emphasis on critical thinking. The protagonists weigh up alternative courses of action, discover "is/ought" dilemmas and unintended consequences, make mistakes, work out best courses of action, negotiate the relationship between what is morally best and what is pragmatically possible. In the very best possible sense (and without ever obtrusively appearing to do so), the exciting and engrossing stories take their readers through a series of thought experiments in ethics. This final book ties up that process by making explicit an overarching theme which started with Lina in Ember, was given form by Maddy in Sparks, and is put into words here by Grover.

Long ago, perhaps thirty five years, I watched an episode of Kojak. Most of the content escapes me, now, but one scene sticks with me. A federal official of some kind tries to block a multiple murder investigation on grounds of national security. The lollipop sucking detective taps his bald head and replies "National security? National security starts up here, with brains you didn't let someone else mess around with!" The prophet of Yonwood contains a directly congruent scene, in which an outraged Grover tells Nickie: "You should think about what's the right thing to do. Not just take someone's word for it".

There are clear and timely messages here for future citizens (and present citizens too, come to that). Messages particularly for the United States in the early twenty first century, but also for the rest of us around the world. Messages for all of us who too often slip into letting others decide the paths which we follow, the things which are done in our names, and what we allow to be made of our world.

One interesting (and understated, slipped in without fanfare) message is the finally revealed nature of the catastrophe which wiped out most human life. Dr C comments of these books that "they once more resurrect the spectre of a nuclear holocaust" - and so they do, particularly for those of my generation who grew up with the cold war, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, nuclear attack drills, shelters, and the rest. But DuPrau's catastrophe, when revealed, is quieter and more mundane than that. I won't spoil your reading by spelling it out, but it is not in the sort of coup de foudre which we envisage, rather a slow, dirty, tragic effect of the civil disturbance caused by conventional war. There is also an example of how pulling the miraculous out of a hat can pause, but not ultimately stop, everyday human stupidity.

The first novel in the sequence, The city of Ember, I compared to other fictions in which characters discover their world to be other than they believed it to be. Ray Girvan, of the Apothecary's Drawer, wrote in email discussion of my first two posts, refining my 'science fiction' or 'speculative fiction' with the much more satisfactory label 'conceptual breakthrough fiction'. Amongst other good points, he observed that:

"I rather like this genre (i.e. conceptual breakthrough), but in hindsight have some misgivings about the classic examples, in that many have a kind of "misfit finds what's really going on and becomes central to it" theme - which could be read as catering essentially to empowerment fantasies of geeky SF readers.
Having young protagonists - of an age where curiosity and exploration is normal, yet small enough in the scheme of things to take a more humble role in what they find - seems a much more natural and healthy angle on the idea.

He's right, I realised - and DuPrau makes good use of that idea.

If I had to make a quick and glib characterisation, I would say that Ember is the most inventive book; Sparks the wisest; and Yonwood the most urgent. But that would do all of them a disservice.

I've commented before on the warm, open hearted generosity of these novels. That continues here, and is the most important thing throughout. DuPrau doesn't really do villains; she has weak people, confused people, lazy people, she even has people who have let greed and selfishness, or vanity, or stupidity, or laziness, lead them to do bad things, but no 'baddies' as such. The cataclysm which threatens Nickie's world will not be the result of evil but of "people ... believing that theirs was the only real truth, and all of them willing to do anything - absolutely anything - to defend it".

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