What was once North America has been reduced, by what we are not told. The new country, Panem (as in the “bread” part of Rome’s Bread and Circuses, or supposedly, Pan-America) is not exactly a fun place to live. A decadent Capitol rules over 12 subservient, worker districts. Katliss is a 16-year-old who lives with her depression-incapacitated mother and her 12-year-old sister, Prim, whom she loves more than anything. She lives in the coal-producing District 12, a sooty place in the former Appalachia where life expectancy is as bleak as the food ration is small. She learned hunting skills from her late father and supplements her family’s meager ration with game, hunting frequently with her 18-yr-old friend Gale.
Hearkening back to ancient Greece, as a way of demonstrating its dominance over the twelve districts, every year each district must send one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 the Hunger Games. Contestants, or tributes, in the very Rome-centric nomenclature of the book, are selected by lottery, but one can get food for increasing the number of entries one is willing to submit. This is not necessarily a lottery you would want to win, as the Hunger Games contest is a gladiatorial battle to the death. Joining an ancient form of barbarity with a more modern version, the contest is seen by the nation on television, gussied up with all the pomp and circumstance of the World Cup, Superbowl and World Series combined, with the degrading intrusiveness of reality television.
When the unlucky Prim is selected, Katliss offers to take her place, joining the muscular baker’s son, Peeta. (On this rock I will build my oven?) They are transported to the Capitol, dressed up, interviewed on TV, offered training in several forms of combat and sent out there to do or die. The rest is their ordeal, which includes having to succeed not only with physical skills such as strength and agility. In addition to the need for cunning in figuring out how to best their competitors, they have to figure out how to please the television audience, among which are sponsors who might send them much needed goods during the game.
Katliss is caught not only in a brutal contest with the other tributes, but in a confusing battle with her own adolescent emotions. What are her feelings, really, for her male counterpart from District 12, Peeta, and for her hunky bff, Gale, back home (team Gale vs team Peeta anyone)? How can she express her rage at the operators of this horror for their inhumanity?
This is a fast-paced and engaging read, even for one who is waaaay past the target YA demographic. I quite enjoyed reading the book, hated putting it down. Collins offers characters one can root for, with enough inner conflict and complexity to matter, well some of them, without it being overbearing, or slowing down the story.
Ok, I liked the book. But I had a niggling concern early on. When I began reading, I wondered if there might be a political agenda at play. The “Capitol” is clearly the evil tyrant here, with the oppressed working people living in dread of their overlords. Had this story been published in the early-to-mid 20th century, one might presume that the “Capitol” stood in for the fascism of Germany, Italy or Spain, or the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union or China. However, given the political climate of the twenty-teens, in which cynical forces of the right seek at every opportunity to portray government of any sort (unless of course they are in charge of it) as the personification of evil, one must wonder if the author subscribes to the notion. I confess to not having read her other work, so lack a basis there, and the interviews with Collins I have read offer no insight. So, I am not saying that this is so, just that the portrayal made me wonder. I will read more of Collins’ work and look into the subject some more outside pages she wrote, and if I find anything definitive I will update this entry. But I will
be reading the next book in the series.