Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Girl Who Owned a City--O.T. Nelson

May 19, 2010
Imagine a deadly virus has wiped out every human on earth over the age of twelve. What would become of the children left behind? O.T. Nelson's short novel The Girl Who Owned a City explores how children, if left to their own devices, might fare in a world devoid of the adults who once kept them safe.

As with many pieces of speculative fiction, the requirement for suspension of disbelief is great. There are problems raised within the novel that somehow seem to solve themselves or become non-issues as the storyline progresses. (An example? Where are all the bodies of all of these adults who have died? They just mysteriously vanished?) There's also the seemingly unbelievable ease with which our protagonist rises from ordinary every-day ten year old girl to leader of the city, commanding attention and negotiating the clandestine building of the fortress that will house the titular city and protect its citizens from outside attack.

Lisa is our protagonist. Initially, there is nothing spectacular about her, but she recognizes the need for action to protect herself, her brother, and her home from looting bands of child-thieves who are also seeking out whatever way they can find to survive. There are no caretakers anymore, and Lisa realizes that she must step into that role if she and her brother are to stay out of harm's way. Within a short span, she teaches herself how to drive, finds first a farm and then an entire warehouse store that has been left untouched by looters. (She is apparently the only one to have remembered its existence.) As she begins to stockpile goods for survival--she calculates that they can survive on what they find in the warehouse for up to a year--she also sees that if she is the only one with food and necessities, she will be the target for attack if she doesn't join forces with the other orphaned children of her neighborhood.

Lisa gathers together the child-inhabitants of her neighborhood and promises them safety and food in return for their allegiance and oath to work together in building up defenses against the gangs that are beginning to form in surrounding areas. Here the novel becomes a bit too heavy-handed and preachy, as Lisa none too subtly espouses (sometimes to her neighbors, sometimes merely aloud to herself) her philosophy of life. Life is good--fun, even--when one works to earn what they have. The fun of life is solving problems, and that is how one earns his or her possessions. This philosophy is one that Lisa, and by extension the author, continues to present as TRUTH throughout the novel, at the exclusion of all other viewpoints.

It's a very utilitarian approach to life, pragmatic and somewhat detached. The interesting thing is that this philosophy is in stark contrast to two other viewpoints, seemingly equally important, that Lisa shuns as at best a waste of time, and at worst, detrimental. Jill is a mother-figure of a child who has taken in some of the frightened orphans to live in her home. She takes care of them, looks after their emotional needs, and has the true heart of a humanitarian. This approach, according to Lisa, merely serves to coddle them and leave them helpless and vulnerable. It does, in fact, more harm than good. Although Jill is never quite convinced Lisa is right, for the protection of the children she is willing to work within Lisa's rules and guidelines. The second viewpoint is Craig's, who feels it would be valuable to relocate to the country farm and learn how to grow crops that could feed them all. His ideas of an agrarian lifestyle are nonsense to Lisa, who believes the first priority is to militarize and form a defense so strong that offense is not necessary against adversaries. Charlie, too, reluctantly joins forces with Lisa and abandons his idea in the interest of solidarity and protection.

The most interesting thing about this is that it does not seem that any of these things are mutually exclusive, though they certainly are presented in that way. Lisa does pay a bit of a price for not being as maternal as Jill; the kids think she's bossy and mean. However, the more serious consequence for not incorporating all of these approaches to building up a citizenry is the abandonment of farming as a viable form of self-reliance. This is entirely glossed over within the context of the novel, though. Despite the fact that Lisa initially estimates there is enough food in the warehouse to sustain their little group for a year, as the novel progresses we are taken through not one, but two years of their existence, and the original group grows in numbers as they recruit additional children into their fold. So how do they continue to feed all those mouths? If Craig had been allowed to begin farming, it would be logical that perhaps that's where some of the food was coming from. He wasn't, though, so we are supposed to believe that they simply have found another stash of food that had been unmolested by other bands of children foraging to survive.

Early on, Lisa decides that it is too difficult to adequately protect each individual's home in the neighborhood from gangs once her own home is attacked, and an epiphany leads her to contemplate renovating the nearby school into the fortress that will become their home. After nights of working in secret to prepare (during which time they find all the necessary implements to devise all manner of defense for the building and everything to provide for the needs of all the inhabitants), the entire neighborhood relocates to their new home. Predictably, a band of thieves discover the fortified building (but naturally they didn't see it until it was inhabited) and decide to take it for themselves.

The battle ensues, and for a time it appears the attackers have been successful. Lisa, thought to be dead on the battlefield, recovers and devises a plan to regain control of her city. And here, the biggest expectation of suspension of disbelief--when all is said and done, and Lisa is left to confront the leader of the opposition and she is at his mercy, she simply tells him that the reason the city shouldn't be his is that he didn't EARN it, didn't WORK for it. He should know that it would never be fun or satisfying to lead in this city because he wasn't the one who solved the problems and learned how to build it. He would always be afraid of losing it because it wasn't truly his.

And you know what? He buys it. Sees the wisdom of her words and walks away, and she wins her city back--just like that.

This is a young fiction novel, but I'm fairly certain that even my twelve-year-old self would have cried foul at that. Too easy, too black and white, too 'here is the lesson you're meant to learn.' There's not so much a sense of 'and they all lived happily ever after' as there was a sense of, 'see--I was right all along.' Speculative fiction though it may be, I expect some sense of reality when I spend time with my characters. And the truth is, these characters didn't behave like real people, conflicted and frightened and even desperate in the face of a potentially devastating future. The premise is a really interesting one, yielding rich possibilities to contemplate and weigh, even within the context of young adult fiction. The target age group is intelligent and merits a more substantive read than the author has provided.


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