One for the Books: Postapocalyptic dystopias

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A dystopia is an anti-utopia, the opposite of an ideal community; it’s an extremely alarming situation or a complete breakdown of society. Often in novels such a scenario is postapocalyptic; it springs up after a catastrophically destructive disaster or apocalypse. I’ve been looking at several novels set in such conditions, and I found two recent examples that have good, solid storylines. They’re based on entirely different scenarios, but both create a firm character base, and both are traveling “quest” adventures with fast-moving plots and plenty of excitement.

“Moon of the Turning Leaves” by Waubgeshig Rice is a nicely written novel set in upper Ontario, Canada. The characters are indigenous Anishinaabe. The author learned of this culture through his father, so all the references ring true.

Our hero is a 15-year-old girl named Nangohns. She’s a talented, stealthy hunter who says, “I can disappear anytime, and no one would see or hear me.” She lives in the “new” village. “She and her family had made this land their new home, a half-day’s walk from the crumbling homes and buildings of the old reserve.”

More than a decade before, the power had gone out everywhere, causing chaos and a complete societal breakdown. “She had been three when the power went out, and only five when her father had led their people off the old rez and into the bush.” There they’ve created a good life as a traditional First Nations community with about 50 members. They live much as their ancestors did, hunting all kinds of game, smoking meat and fish to preserve it, gardening, and harvesting wild rice. But their lake is almost fished out, and it’s harder to find game. “There’s a reason our ancestors always picked up and left whenever the seasons told them to. Anishinaabek were meant to move,” explains another tribe member. Their old reservation was on the Great Lakes, with plenty of land and water and resources. “That land is who we are. … It’s time to go back home.”

But first, an elder says, “We need to know what’s happening down there … before we decide if a big move is something we can do.” They need to have a scouting party go south. But four years earlier another scouting party had gone out to see if the old reservation was still there. “They never returned.” And they weren’t the only ones. It was a dangerous proposition.

“A trek by foot all the way down to the north shore of the Great Lakes could take a month,” says an elder. Six tribal members volunteer to go, including Nangohns. So we follow them on their long journey south, where they encounter people with friendly natures and some with evil intentions.

This is an interesting combination of warm-hearted indigenous lifestyle and exciting, sometimes violent adventure. I think teens will like the teen heroine. This is a sequel to the author’s award-winning “Moon of the Crusted Snow,” which is set 13 years earlier, when the blackout occurred. I haven’t read that one yet, but now I want to!

“Hilldweller: The Vonn Clan” by R.J. Decker is told in the first person by main character Kynen Vonn. He was in the Army for 25 years, serving as a combat medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’s now living in Rhode Island.

A friend writes to invite him to his farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The farm can support gardens, animals, and “a sustainable lifestyle.” While Vonn considers moving, a virus has been spreading throughout Asia and Europe, and almost in an instant, the virus had spread throughout the U.S., killing millions. One by one, Vonn’s neighbors die, and although he appears to be immune to the virus, he knows it’s too dangerous for him to stay. Now only a few million people are left in the entire world.

Locally, the power has gone out, and there’s nobody left who knows how to fix it. The survivors are scavenging for supplies and are getting violent.

He decides to go to the Michigan farm, along with some old and new friends. Together they start their long journey west. “We all rolled out toward what we hoped would be a safe forever home,” Vonn writes. Along the way, he encounters some self-seeking evildoers, but eventually he meets up with the military — his kind of people. The colonel tells him, “The virus set this planet back two hundred years and has nearly eradicated the human race.” He also tells Vonn about a cult-like group called the New America Militia, whose leader is “out there with an army, and he’s got one goal in mind. And I don’t know if he’s stoppable.” And when Vonn’s group finally gets to the farm, all is not rosy.

The book includes a slew of pop culture references that let you know this could be the very near future — like tomorrow. There’s plenty of excitement, with quite a bit of violence. There’s so much detail on guns and ammo that I was almost groaning, but I’m just not interested in that; you may be. There are a few awkward moments for me, especially in reference to women’s roles.

I admit, this is not Shakespeare, but it doesn’t try to be, and besides, the fast-moving story wins the day. I have to warn you, one reviewer was offended by the author’s frequent use of the word “God.” Frankly, it didn’t bother me.

This is listed as “Book 1,” so look forward to further adventures of Vonn’s new clan.

While we’re talking about dystopian road trips, don’t forget that a year ago I wrote about “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World.” I still think about that one. Don’t miss it.

Happy reading!

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.