October 7th, 2012


The Hunger Games: By Bread Alone

Spoiler Warnings: A few references to passing comments from books two + three are scattered throughout. No major plot spoilers. One more substantive (but still fairly minor) spoiler for "Catching Fire" is included under a spoiler cut.

I want to get back to blogging about the Hunger Games. If you remember, a few days back I told the story of Katniss, Peeta and the bread. In that post I limited myself to telling the story, because it's great fn just to read through it and enjoy it without necessarily looking for deeper themes. But deeper themes are there if you're looking for them.

I think it holds the key to Katniss's character in a powerful way: that, unlike so many of the characters in the book, she's still able to hope on some level. I also think it's deeply relevant that this hope has been extinguished, or at least pushed so far down that she can't quite get hold of it, and that it's an act of kindness by a stranger that wakes her up again. I think this is part and parcel with Plutarch's later comment that the people of Twelve still have a spark of spontaneity that other districts lack. Because the capitol has been less onerous with Twelve than you see in other places, they are a little less protective of what they have, a little more willing to risk it. There's an element of hope woven through their lives that you don't necessarily see in the other districts.

So Katniss's hope Is in a certain sense tied to Peeta's generosity. But that's Peeta. It's Peeta's mum that I really want to talk about. You'll recall that Katniss was looking through her trash-cans, looking for something edible that had been thrown out. Peeta's mum tries to drive her off, mumbling something about how the Seam kids are always pawing through their rubbish. Then when faced with ruined bread, she doesn't consider giving it to Katniss or even donatingit to some kind of food bank (is there even such a thing?). She just tells Peeta to throw it to the pigs.

The first time I read this, I was disgusted with her. It didn't help that she hit Peeta. But on rereading I found myself trying to work out just why she and Peeta reacted the ways they did. I have two theories.

The first: Peeta's dad almost married Katniss's mum. Here's how Peeta remembers the first time he meets Katniss:

"Oh, let's see. I guess the first day of school. We were five. You had on a red plaid dress and your hair ... it was in two braids instead of one. My father pointed you out when we were waiting to line up," Peeta says.

"Your father? Why?" I ask.

"He said, 'See that little girl? I wanted to marry her mother, but she ran off with a coal miner,'" Peeta says.

"What? You're making that up!" I exclaim.

"No, true story," Peeta says. "And I said, 'A coal miner? Why did she want a coal miner if she could've had you?' And he said, 'Because when he sings ... even the birds stop to listen.'"

"That's true. They do. I mean, they did," I say. I'm stunned and surprisingly moved, thinking of the baker telling this to Peeta. It strikes me that my own reluctance to sing, my own dismissal of music might not really be that I think it's a waste of time. It might be because it reminds me too much of my father.

Try flipping that dialogue the other way. Katniss's mum is a town girl, one of the privileged few. Peeta's dad – also (I'm assuming) – a child of privilege loves her. Katniss's mum makes a choice that condemns her to a much harder life, pulled by a whim. And Peeta's dad obviously still loves her in his own way. His wife must have picked up on that. And while there's never any indication that Peeta's dad ever cheated on her or anything, I think the realization that someone in her position (or her children) could so easily be swept out of privilege would get to her. Make her insecure and brittle, and mean that she'd be too scared to give something up if it didn't benefit her. When your world feels unsafe, generosity seems too extravagant.

The other possibility is less forgiving of her – and more damning of our real world, too. But I think it's a big part of the puzzle. Namely: Peeta's mum has a certain degree of privilege. The Capitol can still "reap" her children, and by any reasonable metric even the townspeople are impoverished. (Peeta at one point mentions that they only got to eat the food that was burnt it couldn't be sold.) She and her family are still subject to the severe and often arbitrary laws that characterize life in the districts.

But she's also not having to go hungry, and her sons aren't having to go hungry. By district standards, she's probably pretty rich. And she's got to realize how arbitrary that privilege is. She's living in a world with (a) a lot of income inequality, and (b) no real opportunity to move up the social ladder, for either her or those children of the Seam. It reminds me palpably of stories I've heard recently, including one in particular from a Leonard Pitts editorial. He wrote of a woman he met at the DNC convention:

Sharkara Peters is a 35-year-old single mother of two. She works 34 hours a week at a fast food restaurant. A few months back, she was hospitalized with a blood clot in her lung. Then, one of her daughters needed surgery. As a result, Peters lost about three weeks of work, and could not muster her $335 monthly rent. When I met her last month while in Charlotte reporting on poverty on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, she was facing eviction.

I asked Peters what President Obama should do for people in her economic situation and she answered without hesitation. Obama, she said, needs to do something about girls on welfare that just sit up and have baby after baby and never try to better themselves.

Like Sharkara, Peeta's mum has some degree of security. Sharkara has a job and an apartment and somehow can even afford healthcare. (How she does this on less than full time at a fast food restaurant, I won't hazard a guess.) But both Peeta's mum and Sharkara realize that their world is tenuous. You can't live your life thinking the world might sweep it away from you. So what do you do? You convince yourself that those other people are moochers. That they're takers. That they are grubbing through your trash, not because they're so hungry and freezing they can't even risk bending down to pick up Prim's babyclothes, but because they're lazy. The ungrateful wretches. Just sitting around having baby after baby and never try to better themselves? Sub in "pick up their monthly tesserae" for "have baby after baby" and I can easily see Peeta's mum buying into something like that.

In this moment, I don't think Peeta's mum sees Katniss as a human – certainly not as a human worthy of help. If anything, people like Katniss are a reminder of the depths she and her family could fall. The fact that Katniss's dad has now died so Katniss's mum is really stranded in her poverty and doesn't even have her mate to sustain her? On some level, that future has to terrify all of the district's "elite." (Demographics aren't helpful here. Think about it. Peeta has three brothers, and there's no room for commerce to grow so each of them could support families. The only mobility available is downward.) The only way not to be eaten up by that uncertainty is to convince yourself you really are better than such people. Better to throw the burned bread to the pig than to the Seam girl. A fattened pig will help her family some day. It's an investment in her own well-being of a sort. Giving the bread to a starving girl wouldn't work that way.

On some level, I pity Peeta's mum. Or I want to, at least. I think this is because deep down I feel like I need to pity her. This is a human instinct I've seen on full display at the hospital: a kid gets seriously ill, and the various in-laws great the illness like a moral failing, attributable to something the parents did or didn't do. The idea that a kid could get ill for no reason, could even die - it rocks the comfort zone. But this element scares me because at the same time, of course I'm repulsed by the idea that any woman could drive a starving child away from her garbage like a dog, then just minutes later could throw fresh bread to the pig rather than even seeing if she was still around.

I'd like to say I have some great solution. If I did, I'd probably be running for office, because this is I think the problem of our day, in a society with as much inequality as us: how to see the poor not as causes or as moochers but as fellow citizens. I think the key lies in realizing what you're doing and being aware of it – and I like to think that her son's reaping might have changed her perspective a bit. Taken away the illusion that anyone is truly safe, or at least start acting like safety isn't the most important thing.

[Spoiler (click to open)]Actually, writing this up, something occurred to me that hadn't occurred to me before. In "Catching Fire," Peeta and Katniss are given homes in Victor's Square – truly extravagant homes by district standards. Easily large enough for Peeta's family. Katniss's family moves in with her, but Peeta's doesn't. I wonder how his family's history with Katniss's plays into all of that. It seems significant, though I can't quite figure out how. Would Peet ahave wanted them around? Would Peeta's mum have felt comfortable living so close to Katniss's. Was Peeta's walking-wounded status – the nightmares, the inevitable mental scars of the Games, the artificial leg – a palpable reminder of how unfair life is? Could they maybe not bear to be around that, if Peeta's brothers were still eligible? As far as I can remember, Suzanne Collins never tells us why they lived separately.

What do you make of Peeta's mum's actions here? I keep tottering between hating her for being so heartless and self-absorbed, to seeing her as utterly normal (and hating myself for being reflected in her). Are you bothered by her lack of mercy here? Or does it just seem to "fit" somehow? I'm curious – what do you think?

Grooving on a Cold Autumn Night

It's cold and wet here in the Bronx. I'm hoping everyone is warm and has dry toes, wherever you are.

Nights like this are just made for drinking hot cocoa or cider and listening to good music. Preferably long music of the jazz/blues/groovalicious variety. Enjoy Ray Charles and BB King singing "The Sinner's Prayer":

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SED #2: Autumn in New York

It's currently 50 degrees Fahrenheit outside my window. Raining off and on. I have a mug of white chocolate with a little bit of pumpkin spice and cinnamon mixed in, in one of my favorite mugs, and some made from scratch gingerbread men my neighbor made. And I'm sitting at my desk, listening to Miles Davis duets while I review French.

And in two days I will be able to cross those last four words off the preceding paragraph.

Do I really have to spell out why this qualifies as my daily happy?