I know, I know, I’m two thousand and late with this one but lately starting a new book I’ve never read has been difficult. I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books and I decided to revisit The Hunger Games trilogy as well. I’ve never actually read Mockingjay (the third book), only seen the terrible movies, and this will be my chance to see if the book is better.
The first book in this trilogy goes so fucking hard. Honestly the speed with which Collins moves you through the absolute, gut-wrenching trauma of this universe is really spectacular. The first chapter manages to familiarize us with District 12, Katniss, her family’s history, her survival skills, her love for her sister, and the 74th Hunger Games reaping all in one short chapter and it’s simply amazing. I’ve read this book before and I was still hooked immediately and couldn’t stop reading.
What I like most about the story is the bright elements of humanity scattered throughout. In the midst of teenagers murdering each other for the entertainment of the entire nation, we still see friendships, empathy, support, grief, and love. I would argue that these elements are made even more stark when staged against the bloodbath and terror of the games. They give you a moment to breathe before you’re watching Katniss or Peeta fight/run for their lives again.
The trilogy as a whole (again, I’ve never read the third book, only seen the movies based on it) tracks Katniss’ journey from having no choice to being able to choose and claim agency. In this first book her survival skills and management of her family’s day to day operations is not her choice, it is essential and necessary if she wants to keep them all alive. Her inclusion in the games may seem like a choice, but again keeping her family alive and safe isn’t a choice, it’s duty to her. There was no other option but to volunteer in Prim’s place. Even in the Games she has no choice but to act like she is in love with Peeta because their “star crossed lovers” routine earns them sponsors and gifts in the arena, and she has promised Prim to try to win. Everything in this first book is something she must do, not anything she chooses to do.
This is a book that speaks to me on many levels. The idea of an obligation being disguised as a choice happens to people who are on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder all the time. Just because we are presented with options does not mean that they are all viable choices we can make. The choice Katniss has between poaching and death, learning safe, edible plants or dying, volunteering for the Games or having Prim go and die – none of these are choices between this or that. They are obvious directives.
Right now we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and school districts around the country are boasting about offering parents a choice: online or back to physical school. Aren’t we magnanimous to offer these options! Parents get to choose what is best for their families! In reality more well-off families, or parents who work from home will be able to keep their students SAFE, while other parents must send their kids back because they have to go to work and while they are given options, they don’t really have a choice.
Even farther down (further down? fuck it, I’m not looking it up) teachers were given options too! Come back to physical schools, teach a combo of online or in-person, or teach online only from home. If none of these worked for a teacher, they could resign, retire, or take a leave of absence. The only trick was that the availability of online only or the combo options depended on the responses from the parent survey. So, for example, if a school had 100% of the kids say they were coming back, no teacher assigned to that school would be able to teach safely from home even if they chose that option. Even if they had cancer. Even if they had asthma. Even if they had any number of conditions. Even if they were simply scared to work in unsafe conditions. Teachers had no choice at all – their preference was left to the mercy of however many kids came back or not.
Is it The Hunger Games? No, but the spirit of the Games is present here in America in 2020. No choice, fighting for survival and resources, and lining up to see the case and death numbers rise without doing anything to stop it. At all the state and federal Capitols they sit in their money and glamour and watch as we fight and try to survive, and it doesn’t even touch them. They have no concept of what living in America costs, whether those costs be financial or emotional, and even if they do they do not care. It’s more entertaining to watch us fight for scraps.
Reading this book right now is so necessary, it’s so relevant. If you haven’t read it before, you should. You might recognize more themes from our own reality than you expect. Go get you some.