September 27th, 2012


The Hunger Games: Hope Dies Last

I've been blogging a lot about the philosophical issues touched on in The Hunger Games. One of the things I love most about those books is their potential as metaphor, so perhaps that's not so great a surprise: they made me think, not so much about the events themselves, but the "deep thoughts" they brought into a new focus. Tonight, though, I'd like to share a story. It's touched on in the movies but really only told in the books. Does that warrant a spoiler? I'm really only flagging for the later two books, but I thought I'd mention it.

Anyway. As I mentioned Katniss's father dies in a mining accident. This happens several months before her twelfth birthday (when she'd be allowed to sign up for grain in exchange for Hunger Game entries). The district gives her mum a cash settlement that's supposed to support their family for a month, at which time Katniss's mum is supposed to find work. However, Katniss's mum is so weighed down with depression she can't do this, and so Katniss and her sister are basically starving. Here's how Katniss describes that point in her life:

The rain had soaked through my father's hunting jacket, leaving me chilled to the bone. For three days we'd had nothing but boiled water with some old dried mint leaves I'd found in the back of a cupboard. By the time the market closed, I was shaking so hard I dropped my bundle of baby clothes in a mud puddle. I didn't pick it up for fear I would keel over and be unable to regain my feet. Besides, no one wanted those clothes.

I couldn't go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips. I couldn't walk into that room with the smoky fire from the deep branches I had scavenged at the edge of the woods after the coal had run out, my hands empty of any hope.

This reminded me of a day maybe two years ago, when I was taking a course at the New School. It meant a long subway ride, and this particular day I'd been caught offguard by the weather. So it was early November and I just had a thin sweater on, no jacket or gloves, and there was a kind of frozen mist and a harsh wind that day. It was miserable, until I got to the subway and the heat coming out of it felt sooo good I almost laughed. It was that feeling of contentment, almost like smelling fresh-baked bread.

And keep in mind, I'd been walking for twenty-minutes, not standing around all day after having boiled mint leaves and nothing else for three days. I can hardly imagine how despondent Katniss would have been.

Hope awakens for Katniss pretty quickly, and it's that same refreshing promise of comfort that does it. But it doesn't last very long at first. She's walking through the rich part of town on the way home when the following happens:

All forms of stealing are forbidden in District 12. Punishable by death. But it crossed my mind that there might be something in the trash bins, and those were fair game. Perhaps a bone at the butcher's or rotted vegetables at the grocer's, something no one but my family was desperate enough to eat. Unfortunately, the bins had just been emptied.

When I passed the baker's, the smell of fresh bread was so overwhelming I felt dizzy. The ovens were in the back, and a golden glow spilled out the open kitchen door. I stood mesmerized by the heat and the luscious scent until the rain interfered, running its icy fingers down my back, forcing me back to life. I lifted the lid to the baker's trash bin and found it spotlessly, heartlessly bare.

Suddenly a voice was screaming at me and I looked up to see the baker's wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the Peacekeepers and how sick she was of having those brats from the Seam pawing through her trash. The words were ugly and I had no defense. As I carefully replaced the lid and backed away, I noticed him, a boy with blond hair peering out from behind his mother's back. I'd seen him at school. He was in my year, but I didn't know his name. He stuck with the town kids, so how would I? His mother went back into the grocery grumbling, but he must have been watching me as I made my way behind the pen that held their pig and leaned against the far side of an old apple tree. The realization that I'd have nothing to take home had finally sunk in. My knees buckled and I slid down the tree trunk to its roots. It was too much. I was too sick and weak and tired, oh, so tired. Let them call the Peacekeepers and take us to the community home, I thought. Or better yet, let me die right here in the rain.

The boy here is Peeta, who is sent to the Hunger Games along with Katniss. His family runs the bakery and so is well-off by District standards. And he's the one that helps her hope again:

There was a clatter in the bakery and I heard the woman screaming again and the sound of a blow, and I vaguely wondered what was going on. Feet sloshed toward me through the mud and I thought, it's her. She's coming to drive me away with a stick. But it wasn't her. It was the boy. In his arms, he carried two large loaves of bread that must have fallen into the fire because the crusts were scorched black.

His mother was yelling, "Feed it to the pig, you stupid creature! Why not? No one decent will buy burned bread!"
He began to tear off chunks from the burned parts and toss them into the trough, and the front bakery bell rung and the mother disappeared to help a customer.

The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him. Because of the bread, because of the red weal that stood out on his cheekbone. What had she hit him with?

My parents never hit us. I couldn't even imagine it. The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back on the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. The second quickly followed, and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tightly behind him.

Now, I could get fixated on the fact that Peeta's mum wants to feed the pig rather than the girl, or the other starving people who would benefit from it. This seems to be common feature of all the districts, and I'll get back to this if I'm still doing this when we come to "Mockingjay," because this lack of commitment to the common good becomes significant there. Here, though, it's Peeta I want to think about. He threw her the bread, purposely. As we learn later it wasn't an accident; he burned the bread for the girl who could sing so beautifully. (Peeta's dad had a bit of a crush on Katniss's mum in their youth, but Katniss's mum of course fell for Katniss's dad precisely because she loved his songs.)

At the time, it doesn't occur to Katniss that Peeta had done this on purpose. That night, she considers it but dismisses the idea. But seeing him the next day at school, the thought that some seeming-stranger would do this for her touches her deeply:

I had just turned away from Peeta Mellark's bruised face when I saw the dandelion and I knew hope wasn't lost. I plucked it carefully and hurried home. I grabbed a bucket and Prim's hand and headed to the Meadow and yes, it was dotted with the golden-headed weeds. After we'd harvested those, we scrounged along inside the fence for probably a mile until we'd filled the bucket with the dandelion greens, stems, and flowers. That night, we gorged ourselves on dandelion salad and the rest of the bakery bread.

More than just giving Katniss and her family a few days' food, it gives them hope:

I had just turned away from Peeta Mellark's bruised face when I saw the dandelion and I knew hope wasn't lost. I plucked it carefully and hurried home. I grabbed a bucket and Prim's hand and headed to the Meadow and yes, it was dotted with the golden-headed weeds. After we'd harvested those, we scrounged along inside the fence for probably a mile until we'd filled the bucket with the dandelion greens, stems, and flowers. That night, we gorged ourselves on dandelion salad and the rest of the bakery bread.

"What else?" Prim asked me. "What other food can we find?"

"All kinds of things," I promised her. "I just have to remember them."

That very concept of promising - it's so full of hope, at least IMO. Suicidal people do not make promises, nor do the terminally ill. A decent person who promises expects to be around to fulfill it. I cannot imagine a Katniss who expected to die making a promise like that to Prim. But back to that scene...

"All kinds of things," I promised her. "I just have to remember them."

My mother had a book she'd brought with her from the apothecary shop. The pages were made of old parchment and covered in ink drawings of plants. Neat handwritten blocks told their names, where to gather them, when they came in bloom, their medical uses. But my father added other entries to the book. Plants for eating, not healing. Dandelions, pokeweed, wild onions, pines. Prim and I spent the rest of the night poring over those pages.

The next day, we were off school. For a while I hung around the edges of the Meadow, but finally I worked up the courage to go under the fence. It was the first time I'd seen there alone, without my father's weapons to protect me. But I retrieved the small bow and arrows he'd made me from a hollow tree. I probably didn't go more than twenty yards into the woods that day. Most of the time, I perched up in the branches of an old oak, hoping for game to come by. After several hours, I had the good luck to kill a rabbit.

I'd shot a few rabbits before, with my father's guidance. But this I'd done on my own.

We hadn't had meat in months. The sight of the rabbit seemed to stir something in my mother. She roused herself, skinned the carcass, and made a stew with the meat and some more greens Prim had gathered. Then she acted confused and went back to bed, but when the stew was done, we made her eat a bowl.

The woods became our savior, and each day I went a bit further into its arms. It was slow-going at first, but I was determined to feed us. I stole eggs from nests, caught fish in nets, sometimes managed to shoot a squirrel or rabbit for stew, and gathered the various plants that sprung up beneath my feet. Plants are tricky. Many are edible, but one false mouthful and you're dead. I checked and double-checked the plants I harvested with my father's pictures. I kept us alive.

It's tempting to say that without being so overrun with her immediate needs Katnill would have seen this earlier - that that is what lets her remember her abilities at woodcraft. Katniss's greatest ability, time and again, is her drive to survive. Even on an unconscious level, she's willing to risk defying the Capitol in order to get home (and get home as herself). She's someone who will fight to live, and one reading of this story is that she's so beaten down by life, she's lost sight of herself.

I think there's a more fundamental change going on here, though. It's not just that Katniss needs to be reminded of her abilities. She has good reason, looking at the situation realistically, to think she doesn't have what it takes to survive. She's eleven; it usually takes two adults working full time to keep families running. She attributes that first kill not to skill but to luck. And I think that's the key here. The bread and the dandelions and her eventual slipping into the woods represent a real leap of faith on her part. Starvation isn't uncommon in District Twelve, as Katniss notes, and these greens are around for others to kiss. It's almost like they're dying as much from a lack of hope, an inability to believe they could possibly survive, as from a lack of food.

I may come back to this in another post in a few days. There's an interesting philosophy slinking behind this, but at the same time I'm afraid to examine it too closely. Tolkien fans will appreciate what I mean when I say that she who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom - and there's some power in a story that you lose in logical analysis. (Plato would, undoubtedly, be astonished to hear one of his ilk say such a thing.) So for the moment I want to just sit with the story and enjoy it on this level.

What do you make of this story? Did you read it differently from me? Latch on to elements I overlooked?

get thee to a voting booth

The day Obama signed the order allowing a president to assassinate an American citizen, no trial necessary, I switched my registration from the Democratic to independent. To be fair, this was simply the straw that broke the camel's back. I was growing increasingly disillusioned with Obama's failure to hold the rich and powerful accountable under the law, or reform things like the commercial jail system, the drug war and the criminalization of minor offenses in schools that meant the law fell unfairly and inexcusably heavily on the poor and minorities. Civil rights is not itself a do-or-die issue with me. I mean, to my great shame I don't have a real problem being recorded on security cameras or patted down at airports. It's a hassle, and ineffective, but it's not like I am opposed on principle to surveillance. I feel I should be more bothered than I am, but I'm just not. So even though it was civil rights that drove me from the Democratic party, it didn't drive me to libertarianism.

A few weeks ago I took an online meme and scored 98% similarity with Jill Stein, the Green party organization. This struck me as a bit odd since environmental issues, again, aren't nearly as important as I think they ought to be. It's human suffering - real, personal suffering due to poverty and uncaring institutions and institutional racisim and sexism and homophobia and lack of education and opportunities - that gets my motor running. I'd come very close to joining the American Socialism party when I left the Dems, but decided against it because of a hostility I sensed toward religion and the value of cultural diversity. They just struck me as a bit cold, neglecting the local community, in a lot of what I read. But the Greens, the more I read about them, the more I found a party after my own heart. The party platform and writings are probably more focused on energy and ecological issues than I am, but I see a real respect for the local community, balanced against the need to respect the needs of individuals who make it up. Some of their individual positions, taken baldly on their own, do bother me; but the overall ethos motivating those positions makes me more inclined to vote for their politicians than for any other party I've researched so far. So last week I updated my voter registration as a Green Party member.

I have no delusions that Jill Stein will win the presidency. I don't even know that I'd want her to; I simply haven't been able to find enough on her positions on the issues that matter most to me. I may vote for her, or I may leave the presidential question on my voter ballot blank. I almost certainly won't be voting for Gary Johnson, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, or any other presidential candidate I've looked into. But there are still state elections and local elections and ballot initiatives to vote on.

My point: Vote. Vote for someone you believe in, even if it's not at the national level or from a major party. Find out which party comes closest to your own views, and research the individual candidates, too. And vote, even if (especially if) you and I disagree on major issues. Some places to start:

The picture at the top of this post is linked to the Rock the Vote website. If you aren't registered, it will help you prepare a form which you can download, print off, and mail to your local board of elections and get registered. It even fills out the address so all you have to do is fold the paper in half, staple it shut, slap on a stamp, and get it in the mail. In New York, the deadline to update your registration is twenty-five days before the election, which means you should register within the next week if you haven't already. But it's not too late.

And by all means, make sure you have the right IDs. Some states are playing with the laws requiring you to have very specific ID's. I'll save my screed against that for another day. But speaking purely pragmatically, make sure you have the ID you need so your vote actually counts. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a good overview of what each state requires.

Democracy rocks, but it only works if people actually use it. So register, get educated, and vote for whomever, at whatever level, you can vote for in good conscience. Even if you think everyone running for any position above county dog-catcher isn't worth the ink it took to print their name - still vote for said dog-catcher. It's the right thing to do.