Reading about war, reading about young people in war, reading about the realness of combat and armed conflict is a journey into the heart of darkness. It is not for the faint-of-heart. In a recent interview, SLJ’s Rick Margolis asked Suzanne Collins, author of Mockingjay (the final book of The Hunger Games series) and the daughter of a career military man, what she hoped young readers would take away from her books. She responded:
One of the reasons it’s important for me to write about war is I really think that the concept of war, the specifics of war, the nature of war, the ethical ambiguities of war are introduced too late to children. I think they can hear them, understand them, know about them, at a much younger age without being scared to death by the stories. It’s not comfortable for us to talk about, so we generally don’t talk about these issues with our kids. But I feel that if the whole concept of war were introduced to kids at an earlier age, we would have better dialogues going on about it, and we would have a fuller understanding.
That war makes monsters of men is the gut wrenching theme of Patrick Ness’s forthcoming Monsters of Men, the final in his Chaos Walking series. Also the child of an American military man, Ness is fierce and uncompromising in this intense book. As in Mockingjay, there is a horrible, hard-to-make-sense-of conflict going on in a dystopic future. While Collins’ takes place on Earth Ness’s takes place on a planet that has been colonized by people from Earth — at first the war is a civil one among the colonists (a terrorist against a megalomaniac), but in the final book it becomes one against the planet’s indigenous people. In both books war is hell. There are rebels, terrorists, and enormously complicated characters, adult and young adult alike. While both address issues of today — Collins’ Hunger Games are reality television of the nth degree while Ness’s Noise (the curse males on the planet have of being able to hear each other’s thoughts) is clearly a statement about our plugged-in world — most of all they are addressing that ancient conundrum — why war?
And when I say war, I mean war. In your face war. Body bag war. (I’m old enough to remember seeing those body bags on television coming back from Vietnam — something we don’t see today, I should point out.) Mockingjay opens with protagonist Katniss on a killing field. The first word of Monsters of Men is war. Dreadful things happen in both books because of war. Innocents are slaughtered. There is horrific emotional and physical pain. There is heartache of the sort that seems almost impossible to bear. People are broken. Some are healed completely and some are not. People fall in and out of love. People question. Some forgive. Some take vengeance. That all is fair in love and war is utterly beside the point if not completely specious.
The books, each in their own unique ways, are harrowing reads. While I know others have read these books without pause, I needed breaks. It took me days to complete Monsters of Men as I had to take psychic breathers from it. Mockingjay was a bit easier, but as I wrote here, I knew I couldn’t finish it before bed. Again, these are not for the faint-of-heart.
Joseph Conrad may have had something different in mind when Kurtz died shouting about “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness, but there is no doubt in my mind that war is horror. I lived in Sierra Leone in 1974-76. It was a beautiful country with wonderful people and it was unimaginable to me that it could become something different. But it did — somehow people in that country turned into something else, into brutal killing machines. For some reason I cannot fathom; I do not have the imaginative ability to do so. Real or not real? is a question posed in Mockingjay. Real as it feels, the real thing is worse, real war is worse. That people we love, admire, respect can kill other people seems impossible to me. No matter what. Yet it happens. And we need to think about it. In Mockingjay and Monsters of Men Suzanne Collins and Patrick Ness push young readers to do just that.