The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press September 14, 2008
In a post-apocalyptic world, sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen is the sole provider for her family after the untimely death of her father some years before. With a mentally ill mother and a preadolescent sister, Katniss has three mouths to feed in District 12, where food is strictly rationed by the Peacekeepers, a force that answers directly to the controlling capitol, Panem. The capitol controls all twelve Districts by means of food rationing, force, and a diabolical practice called The Hunger Games. Each year, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen are randomly selected via name drawing to represent their district in a gladiator-like challenge between the other eleven districts and each other. Only one “tribute”, as they’re called, can win the games and return home alive. Viewing of the games by every citizen is mandatory. As a means of control, the capitol has landed on a very effective one.
Katniss eventually becomes the female tribute for her District, opposite a boy named Peeta Marak who has a special connection to her past. Now Katniss must fight for her life, and the lives of her mother and sister, while struggling with the strange mix of emotions she has for Peeta. The other 22 tributes aren’t anything to ignore, either. Luckily, Katniss has plenty of experience with surviving, thanks to several years’ worth of hunting and gathering food for her family when they couldn’t afford it any other way.
The plot for The Hunger Games is simplistic. You know the outcome after the first couple of chapters. But it’s the journey towards that ending that kept me reading. Katniss is not your typical sixteen year old YA heroine. She’s tough, untrusting, and capable. Her mind is like a steel trap, snatching up every bit of information available to her and never letting go, even though it might seem useless at the time. The skills she gained and added to from her father and her friend Gale serve her extremely well and you never get the impression that she’s waiting to be rescued by Peeta or anyone else. Although from a backwater District that is the lowest on the hierarchical scale of this civilization, she quickly grasps at least a basic understanding of the political landscape when she is thrust into the limelight at the capitol, indicating a high level of intelligence that goes beyond knowing outdoor survival skills.
When it comes to Peeta, she’s both calculating and confused, but she doesn’t let her confusion distract her from her goal of winning and returning home covered in enough riches to feed her family for the rest of their lives. In order to gain sponsorship from wealthy patrons on the outside who can send aid to her inside the arena, her story must be compelling, and if that means lying, acting, or killing, she’ll do it. Peeta himself is a fairly shallow character; we learn little about him other than that he carries strong feelings for Katniss and has since they were very young. He seems to have no other goals or dreams in life, which is disappointing. Katniss deserves a potential partner of equal complexity. Her friend and hunting partner from District 12, Gale, is much more interesting but has very little face time in this first book. Hopefully we’ll see more of him in Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy.
An interesting part of the story is the technological disparity between the capitol, Panem, and District 12. In District 12, Katniss hunts with a bow and arrows that she doesn’t even know how to successfully duplicate, the mining that is the District’s contribution to the capitol is still done by humans who eventually sicken and die from coal dust poisoning, and people are regularly seen starving in the streets. But in Panem, they have hovercraft, food replicators, and highly advanced medical technology, as well as the ability to control at least select areas of weather and climate. One shot is enough to cure a gangrenous infection, and they have rejuvenating drugs that can even erase scars and blemishes from your skin. It’s obvious that yet another form of control by Panem is the withholding of technology from the outer Districts, but not much is explained about why. We learn little about the government and why they’re in power in The Hunger Games, except a brief mention of a rebellion several generations ago, but I have a feeling more will be forthcoming in the next two books.
This passes the Bechdel Test, although it’s a close thing. Katniss has little contact with women after the games begin, and her main mentors and friends are generally men. There are some characters of color, but not prominent ones, and there are no LGBT characters or even mention of the possibility of being gay. Diversity overall is severely lacking, although the fact that as many girls as boys are entered into the games without favoritism is a point in the book’s favor. The book is frank about the deaths of the children during the games, but the descriptions are not overly graphic.
Class is also very important in the story, with Katniss’s low class upbringing being an asset to her at times, as she is able to withstand hunger, pain, and adverse weather conditions better than the tributes from wealthier families and Districts, who’ve always had enough to eat and shelter over their heads. Could this be considered glamorizing the poor? I don’t think so, as Katniss tells the story of almost starving to death after her father died, and it’s obvious that she’d much rather be wealthy and not hunt, then risk her life and her family’s lives every day out in a forbidden forest. The tributes from wealthier areas have advantages too, in that they have reached their full growth due to enough food, they’ve had training with multiple weapons, and their sponsors on the outside are wealthier and better able to help within the games. It’s also stated that lower class Districts like 12 rarely last long in the games, due mainly to their underfed and under trained state.
The Hunger Games is a good story, not overly original but with a compelling main character that I’ll definitely read more of. I’d like to see the politics develop more, and where the relationships between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale will go from this point. Some more diversity would also be very much appreciated, but considering this is a series that has already been finished, I’ll have to take what’s already been included. If you’re looking for a good easy read with an interesting female lead, this is a good book for that.
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