Katniss is not the smartest character in this book. She is not the bravest, nor the kindest, the most cunning or the most talented. She is not the strongest. In the words of her inebriated mentor, Haymitch, what she has is spunk. She is smart enough, brave enough, kind enough to get through. Her better angel frequently gets the better of her rational thought, but not so much that she is made weak by it.
Her spunk is of a particularly enduring nature that could not be replicated by one of the Career kids, outright gladiators who have been training for this all their lives. Although they have skills and cruelty, they don't have the dogged determination to keep going because someone else is depending on you. Katniss almost can't recall a time that she was not the responsible adult in the family. She does not really think of her life as a set of choices, but as a set of obligations to support her choice to take care of her family. And I bet if you asked her, she never thought of taking care of her family as a choice, just What One Does.
I especially appreciated that Katniss had a mother, but that it was not an easy relationship.
And some small gnarled place inside me hated her for her weakness, for her neglect, for the months she had put us through. Prim forgave her, but I had taken a step back from my mother, put up a wall to protect myself from needing her, and nothing was ever the same between us again.
From drunken, desolate Haymitch to sweet, strong Peeta and smart, cynical Gale, the people around Katniss are extraordinary. Even her stylist, the brilliant Cinna, is a fully-fleshed character in his own right, with his use of beauty as a tool for Katniss's survival.
I never felt like Katniss was the only real person in the story. When she cared about people, we cared about them too.
I think her lack of exceptionality makes it easier to relate to her, to think about ourselves in that same position. Thematically, this book reminded me of Richard Bachman/Stephen King's The Long Walk
. It is also about deadly contests for the amusement of the populace. I am a bit revolted by my own cheering for our hero to win, since it means so many others will lose. I think that internal revulsion is an important part of the emotional weight of the book, since we are complicit in hoping for those deaths. Unlike the long walk, the Hunger Games make a life-and-death difference to the people back home. The winner secures extra food, extra calories for a whole year. Children who sign up for extra chances to be sent to the games can buy enough starvation rations for their family. And anyone who survives will never be hungry again.
This is one of the hungriest books I've ever read. Some books have that deep atmosphere feeling. I can only read Ice Station Zebra
in the dead of summer, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom
in the cool damp winter, lest the books themselves make my atmosphere unlivable. This book made me hungry -- not for madelines or stew or home cooking, but just for food. In Cryptonomicon
, Stephenson posists a "realistic" roleplaying game, where 90% of the game time is about acquiring, preserving, and eating food. This is the book of that game.
Katniss, herself named after a food item, recognizes that this is what drives her:
What would my life be like on a daily basis? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food. Take that away and I’m not really sure who I am, what my identity is.
This is all contrasted with the decadence of the Capital, where their wealth is described in food, in banquets, much more than in the technology or power or weapons that they have. Katniss doesn't have the detachment from food to respect them for their political control, she is too hung up on their enormous caloric wealth. Similarly, she can't really fathom having romantic relationships, although she is that age, because to her, they are an addition to the number of mouths she would have to feed, and keeping her head above water is taking so much energy that she just has no time for romance.
I love reading books where I suspect the author might be smarter or better-educated than me. The more I think about the structure and references in this book, the more I feel like that. I sort of want to have a rolling wiki page or something for everything we think is a classical allusion or a hint about the future from the past.
For instance, I realized when I was explaining the story that the Hunger Games are based on the Greek story of the Minotaur:
Minos required that seven Athenian youths and seven maidens, drawn by lots, be sent every ninth year (some accounts say every year) to be devoured by the Minotaur.
The name of the country, Panem, makes one think of the bread and circuses presaging the fall of Rome. Even the foods described in the feasting are identifiable from the Satyricon
, like the lamb stew with prunes and the tiny birds filled with orange sauce.
I really liked the structure of this book. On the surface, the plot seems straightforward. However, I think this will be one of the series that goes from the particulars of one person to the general of the whole world. This book is about Katniss doing her best in the face of changing circumstances. She has to adapt or die. And she has to accept that death may be the easy option, and perhaps she is going to have to do even harder things than learn to hope again. Peeta is the story's moral center, the standard against which Katniss ends up measuring herself. At the risk of crossing the streams, I feel about Peeta the way I ended up feeling about Neville in the Harry Potter books. He is greater than even he believes, and it is his solidity and grace that allows our heroes to get through what they need to do.
My critique is that I was left desperately wishing for more information about the world -- how big is District 12? How big are the other districts? Who maintains the rail tracks? That sort of thing. I think that curiosity is an excellent sign that the world is real and vibrant. I want to explore it in my mind, in a way I don't need to in a world that has less bearing on the story. I am sure subsequent books will also make things clearer.
The writing is not perfect, but I found it compelling, and given the speed I was reading at, I did not stop to complain. I will forgive quite a lot in someone who grabs me as thoroughly as Collins did, and doesn't let go until the very end of the story.
Read if: you love a good story about a hero who is not a superhero. You like books full of allusion and subtle foreshadowing. You understand that anyone can be a monster and a hero, depending on circumstances.
Skip if: you really cannot abide the death of children, even off-screen. You avoid dystopias. You can't love a hero who kills people. You have sworn off any book with a love triangle.