This was my second book for ARC August, and it’s a good thing it was a quick middle grade read, because I was not impressed. When taking into account that Margaret Peterson Haddix is the author, it becomes even more depressing, because some of her earlier books remain longtime favorites of mine, including Running out of Time (1995), Leaving Fishers (1997) and Among the Hidden (1998). Try those. Not this.
Let me lay it out for you: take the kids from the straight-laced society of The Giver and plop them into a recovering war zone. The concept has potential, but it never pans out. At every turn, there is something groan-worthy that drags down what could’ve been a powerful exploration of nature vs. nurture, societal evolution, racism and human potential.
First up: the names. Rosi – protagonist – fine. Edwy – ambiguous loyalty – interesting… Bobo – little brother – wait what? The Freds/Fredmother/Fredfather – foster parents – I’m sorry I cannot take this seriously. In the book’s defense, the logic behind naming everything in the Fredtown foster village with that prefix is that it’s Norwegian for “peace,” harking to the fact that a Norwegian committee awards the Nobel Peace Prize and the goal of Fredtown is to raise a peaceful generation of humanity. But still. All it does it remind me of a boisterous college classmate, imposing none of the gravitas I’m sure Haddix intended.
Second: As a protagonist, Rosi is flat flat flat. Her only defining feature is that she’s a responsible rule follower who wants to help the younger children in their transition from Fredtown back to their real parents. Sooooooo blaaaaaaaand.
Third: watered down issues. Upon being returned to her actual parents, Rosi is thrust into a world full of strife, poverty, tension and aggression, all of which are utterly human and were utterly absent from Fredtown. As Rosi uncovers the root of the conflict, Haddix narrows it down to this: the people with brown eyes and nose shape A wanted to kill all the people with green eyes and nose shape B. That is not a simplification. That is literally it. I get that this is a middle grade book, but kids are smarter than this utterly cartoonish rendition of racism.
Spoilers follow. But they are hilariously ridiculous, and I really would not recommend reading this book, so you should just go ahead. You’ll get a laugh out of it.
Fourth: an utterly ridiculous ending. Through 270/300 pages, this story still had potential. Will natural parental love kick in, despite the fact that Rosi has been raised by someone else for 12 years and has different values than her parents? Will the kids be able to adapt to their ugly new surroundings? Is another conflict between people groups on the horizon? That’s all derailed when, with ONLY 30 PAGES LEFT, Haddix decided this needed to be a sci-fi with all the subtlety and seriousness of a classic Doctor Who episode. That is, none at all.
The big plot twist is…
I wish I were making this up. It fully sunk in how ridiculous it was when I described it out loud to my family and they all got these really baffled looks on their faces. My thoughts exactly.
Here’s how it went down: Humanity had a war. Some beetle-people wanted to harshly control/possibly exterminate us as a lesser species. The Freds – also aliens, but with green fur, three noses and six eyes – thought humanity deserved a chance. They took every newborn Earth baby to another planet for 12 years in hopes of raising a peaceful generation that would return as adults, because displacing people and then expecting them to solve Earth’s problems is totally a spectacular idea. In the span of those 12 years, humanity evolved enough to win a seat on the intergalactic court and force a vote to return the children early. Aren’t we great. And…yeah. That’s pretty much it. I have completely lost interest in this series.
From here on out, it will undoubtedly include adventure and spaceships and uncovering a bazillion other overblown descriptions of aliens. No no no no no. It seems unusual that an author’s earliest works can hold such powerful voices and well-developed themes, when this book is objectively blah by comparison. I think it’s telling that after she wrapped up the Among the Hidden/Shadow Children books in 2006, she started the Found series in 2008, which has a sci-fi bent from what I can tell. This transition from a decade of contemporary/historical fiction to a decade of sci-fi dabbling continues in the new Children of Exile series, and I am not a fan.
If the notion of another species subtly infiltrating humanity appeals to you, I’d recommend trying The Angel Factory by Terence Blacker instead. If you’ve read any of Haddix’s books and would like to try others of hers, I’d go for any of the ones I listed in the intro, to include:
- Running out of Time, in which a girl discovers she’s been part of a living history museum, and has to escape her 1840 reality to enter 1996 and find help for the diptheria epidemic threatening to sweep her town.
- Leaving Fishers, in which a girl gets swept up in a pseudo-Christian group and has to decide if she’s going to control her life or hand that power over to someone else.
- Among the Hidden, in which third children are banned to prevent overpopulation. Two hidden “thirds” meet, and one has a plan to win their freedom. There are 7 of these books, I like the first 4 best.