Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Wow. Terry Pratchett packs powerful messages in a narrative loaded with action. He challenges assumptions about society, faith, gender, conventions, science, and laws - to name a few. The right balance of humor (adult and adolescent) and seriousness makes this coming-of-age story like nothing I've ever read. Yes, he pulls from the stranded-on-a-desert-island adventure stories that made me think of several classics, but it is his own creation and quite brilliant.

I would have liked being stranded on an island with Pratchett's two hero's, Mau and Daphne. I would have maybe learned a foreign language. Or maybe not. They probably would have killed me by accident considering my poor history with languages (I mispronounced older sister in Mandarin saying a boy's private parts). Because the two characters are from different cultures with different languages, the girl shot a pistol at the boy she was so scared when she met him and the boy shot a spear at the girl thinking that was what the arrows she drew on the map meant. I probably would have tried saying "I want water" and it would have come out "I want vomit." Mau could have obliged with a Grandfather bird meal. The Grandfather birds spit up their meals and oftentimes mirror the feelings of the characters when they are in the dumps. Later the reader finds out they are Pantaloon birds (no such bird exists), which sounds like a type of Hornbill or vulture, and is one example of Pratchett having a hey-ho time with word play and puns. Other examples include Mau who thinks that shoe prints in the sand are the result of a toeless creature. Daphne calls alcohol "demon drink." Mau calls a gun a spark maker. Pilu says that humans call underwear "long johns" after some pirate. Daphne calls the Delphic Oracle, the Pelvic Oracle. My favorite is how Daphne sings the lullaby, "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," to comfort a mother birthing and a newborn, but the villagers turn it into an auspicious, religious song with great power.

The Nation is set on an island in the South Pacific and framed by a subplot at the beginning and end. The Prologue has a creation story of the all-powerful god, Imo, creating humans using dolphin spirits. This is necessary for understanding the religion of Mau's culture. When Imo's world becomes overpopulated, he creates the spirit of death, Locaha, to kill them. Imo believes death has now marred his perfect world and wants to get rid of it, but Locaha says he can't. Imo gives the world to Locaha and goes off to make a perfect world on another planet (similar to Christianity's Heaven). This lays the foundation of bad things happening in an imperfect world; a theme Mau struggles with emotionally throughout the novel along with other characters.

The creation story concludes with Locaha telling Imo he will send humans to Imo's perfect world if they can overcome the meanness in the world. In Imo's world they will "wear stars." Mau is offered this at the end, but he doesn't take it. I'm not sure if he is rejecting religion or immortality. Probably both. Mau's character development shows him in continual battle with Locaha or death. He saves people in order to cheat death and risks his life many times in his efforts to save others. Stars symbolize alternate worlds, magic, science, and religion throughout the story. Pratchett adds depth to his narrative story line not only through symbolism, but by having characters deal with issues on a personal level and then adding large-scale history.

Chapter one reveals a government in an alternate world reminiscent of England's Victorian age. An epidemic has killed the King and decimated the government.  A ship is setting sail to locate the next King in line that happens to be sailing in the South Pacific. The idea is to give the Monarch stability and support the existing government. These governmental issues mirror the religious issues Mau has to deal with internally and on the island; stability or chaos. The end of the story goes back to this part framing it. Chapter two then gets to the island story and the rest of the action plays out from there.

Pratchett shows two people from two cultures coming together in Mau and Daphne. Daphne has been shipwrecked on Mau's island after a tsunami hits and comes from a traditional English upbringing with specific etiquette and rules that she tries to follow at first. Mau was on another island going through a male initiation required of adolescents on his island. He survived the tsunami as a result but feels guilty because his village was on the beach waiting to celebrate his return. The natural disaster caused Mau to question his faith regarding why the gods let bad things happen. He also wonders what defines a nation. Mau's emotional arc has him questioning the gods and embracing science, becoming a rationalist. Daphne questions conventions and nationalism that leads to superiority over others. Both  are innocent and immature at first and their voices are from a kids point of view. This unreliable narrator adds much humor. Eventually, they both grow toward independence and maturity.

The theme of rationalism versus nihilism is woven into many characters. Rationalism has actions based on reason and knowledge not emotion. Nihilism is the rejection of religion and moral principles. Cox is a one-dimensional villain who represents nihilism. The sea captain is religious to an extreme. Ataba is a priest that believes in gods and sees the need for rituals. Religion gives the Nation (or society) structure which in turn makes people feel safe. Mau's questioning can make for discomfort and chaos which is why Ataba rails at him even though he agrees with some of his logic. Mau respects the need for structure and understands Ataba's logic, but distrusts blind acceptance.

Blind acceptance can be seen in many of the characters. It shows up in the villagers who want to blame the Nation for the tsunami. A woman questions Mau as to whether the god anchors were moved. Did his country anger the gods somehow? She is looking for a scapegoat but Mau also recognizes her despair. This is a good example of Pratchett showing an internal struggle and realization in a character (Mau), but tying it in with a bigger picture of illogical thoughts that lead to scapegoats. Many times in history we see scapegoats and acts of injustices based on fear: Salem witch trials, Jim Crow laws, Nazis, Japanese Internment, and on and on it goes. Today we see fear in the headlines with Ebola and ISIS.

Pilu is the most obvious character that represents blind acceptance of the gods. Pratchett has Mau put him down in his thoughts and it was one of the few times I felt the author inserting too much of himself. But then Pratchett takes this flat character and turns him into the gifted storyteller. He shows how readers are not passive listeners but feel like they have rights in the story. When Daphne feels insulted by Pilu mentioning Mau being so scared he wets himself, she's critiquing his storytelling which is exactly what I'm doing writing a review. Pratchett writes with so much ambiguity and depth that he doesn't come across as didactic. At least for me.

Not only is rationalism explored but nationalism. The question of what drives loyalty and devotion in nations is something Mau mulls over. The Nation's grandfathers' speak to Mau and yell at him for doubting their rules and religion. Mau becomes chief by default and eventually has the actions of a chief so that people look at him with respect. He is willing to risk his life for the people in the village. He recognizes the villagers' need to believe in something such as religion. That is why he pulls up the god anchor of water even though he doesn't believe any more. He's acting like a leader. Mau rebels against the rules and becomes a critical thinker. His rationalism and nationalism are intertwined as his character develops. Mau is fascinated by the tools and metal found on Daphne's boat. He feels like his Nation is backwards because they have nothing like it. It isn't until the end of the story when he sees the cave that he has pride in his Nation.

Daphne's emotional arc shows her breaking from conventions and learning that nationalism can be good and bad for society. While nationalism can be good in feeling proud about one's country, in its extreme form it shows the ugly head of superiority; thinking one culture is better than another. She tries to shoot Mau when she first meets him out of panic. While she doesn't say so, I'm sure she wouldn't have shot at another person if he was from her country. Eventually she learns to see the human side of Mau and his goodness. She's even willing to save his life. Daphne slowly questions her country's impulse to colonize. She also considers how Cox can murder another man just for his color. By the end she is demanding that her father treat the villagers with respect and see them as human.

This novel could be very didactic but avoids this trap using the youthful unreliable narrator in the beginning and weaving the themes with the action in a way that should keep most readers engaged. This young adult novel will be challenging for most of my grade 5 students. I am not sure I'd recommend it to many, but I did just sent an 8th grader an email telling her it is a book I think she'd like. She's a thinker. Pratchett says in the epilogue, "Thinking. This book contains some." Hardy-har-har. What an understatement.

5 Smileys

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