Sunday, November 15, 2009
Nation by Terry Pratchett: I know this will seem like blasphemy to some of you, but I’ve never before read a Terry Pratchett novel. However, I have to follow that up with “and…I enjoyed it incredibly”. This Printz finalist is a book about two young people crossing the threshold into adulthood, but it is so much more as well.
Mau lives on an island somewhere in the Pelagic Ocean and is off on “Boys’ Island” learning to become a man. As he is making his way back to his people, the Nation, and the feast that awaits him, a giant tidal wave wipes out his island, leaving him as the only survivor of his people.
Nearby on the same island, is the wreck of the Sweet Judy, a British ship carrying Ermintrude, who is the only survivor and a very proper British girl. Ermintrude quickly changes her name to Daphne and she and Mau learn to speak to each other in toddler-like sentences in each others’ language. Both Daphne and Mau are rebuilding the Nation that has been swept away. They need to find food and make the Island beer, a very important part of Mau’s Nation. More and more people join this island group and the next wave of refugees brings a woman, her starving baby and an old island priest named Ataba who deems Mau “soul-less”, thus he begins referring to him as “demon boy”. Mau begins to show his responsibility as an adult when he chases down a wild pig and milks her so the baby can have some nourishment.
The next group of visitors requires that Daphne “buck up” and delivery a baby- which is accompanied by a hilarious scene where the natives insist Daphne must sing the ancient song to bring new babies into the world. Since Daphne doesn’t know the song, she sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” over and over until the baby is born. Through pantomime, Daphne convinces the new parents that Twinkle probably isn’t going to be a good name for the baby, so they settle on “Guiding Star.” The rising action of the novel involves more Nation re-building with Mau and Daphne at the helm. Mau consistently insists he is not a true man and may even be a demon even though his actions and thoughts prove otherwise and the new island dwellers refer to him as The Chief. At one point, Mau and Daphne, who has now shed most of her proper British behavior, explore an ancestral cave and Daphne discovers that Mau’s ancestors were one of the first world explorers.
Ultimately, Raiders come to the island led by the evil first mate (Cox) of Daphne’s former ship. He challenges Mau to a duel of the Chiefs and the Nation is able to prove itself a working society once again. The end brings a wonderful and funny reconciliation and the realization that Daphne may indeed be closer to Royalty than she thinks.
It is the big questions in the novel that set it apart and make it award-worthy. Mau and Daphne are simultaneously discovering which places and people make them who they are as well as realizing what happens when those places and people are rearranged in one’s life. The wave that hits the island is metaphorical for any difficult time, so even though this novel takes place in a “parallel universe” as Pratchett describes in the back of the book, it is universal in its appeal to young adults. Likewise, the use of the word “Nation” can refer to any Nation building or peer-oriented scale. Pratchett also deftly handles some of life’s biggest philosophical ideas here including religious beliefs and facing our own personal demons. Dry humor abounds and there are laugh out-loud portions; I especially loved the confusion when Mau says he wants to learn Doctorin’ and the British Bishop thinks he means Doctrine. As I have found with my students, the cover of this novel can turn off some of them, so it is well worth anyone’s time to give it a good book talking.