Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Declaration

The Declaration by Gemma Malley

My Grade: A

A British book by a British author, I would have never come across it if it hadn't been for a random search of my local library's catalog. I was searching for something completely different at the time and came across this instead, but I'm very glad I did. It's a shame that more British products don't reach us over here in the US of A. Their movies, books, music and other various outputs are often terrific, and I discovered many great things during my time living in Scotland that I would have never known about. Their stores and advertisements are saturated with American products; it's too bad it doesn't go both ways. But in any case, my library had a copy of this great book, so maybe yours does too.

The Premise:

The year is 2140. The energy crisis has come to a head. Luckily, the powerful drug companies have created a pill that, when taken once a day, keeps you living forever. No more disease, no more illness, no old age. What is the natural result of this? Overpopulation, of course. To deal with this, the British Government bans childbearing and makes everyone sign a Declaration stating they will follow this rule. If for some preposterous reason you want to Opt Out, you can, but you are regarded with suspicion and ostracized by society. However, there were some criminal-type people who signed the Declaration and still had children. All children born illegally are Surplus and a burden on Mother Nature. Only when a parent gives his or her life in exchange for the child's would the child become Legal and be free to live a normal life. But this is not usually the case, so the children must work in Surplus Halls, which are little better than prisons, to pay for their sin of existence and their parents' selfishness. Surplus Anna is just such a child. She accepts her position and epitomizes what a Surplus should be. At 15, she's almost ready to enter the Outside as a perpetual servant to Legals until she dies, and she's looking forward to it. Her world has comfortable rules and boundaries, so she is unprepared when a new Surplus, Peter, arrives at Grange Hall and challenges everything she thought she knew.

My thoughts:

The book is told in third person, mostly following Anna but occasionally switching to Mrs. Margaret Pincent, the House Matron, or Mrs. Sharpe, the Legal who is kind to Anna and helps her and Peter escape to London.

I find the title ironic. It is an oxymoron in a way, because the world 'Declaration' usually has positive connotations. Strictly speaking, the formal definition is 'a statement, announcement, or proclamation,' with no mention as to whether the declaration has positive or negative implications. Historically, however, it has been the vehicle oppressed peoples use to proclaim their freedom despite stronger powers who would control them. Ample example of this appears in both American and British history (The Declaration of Independence, The Declaration of Arbroath, etc.) Yet, to Anna and her peers it means exactly the opposite; it is the only thing that allows Legals to keep Surpluses in a life of servitude.

In fact, the whole book makes me think of opposite day. Do you remember opposite day when you were a kid? Front meant back, left meant right, no meant yes. Well that's sort of how life works in Grange Hall, except on a less superficial level. Children are an infringement on society, they upset Mother Nature simply by existing. Youth is a crime, and parents who have children are only selfish criminals. The illegal children of Grange Hall must toil their whole lives to make up for their very existence. They are little more than slaves, reared for a life of servitude for 'Legal' people. This way of thinking penetrates throughout the whole book, and although it feels utterly backwards and wrong, the author makes this world and way of thinking seem logical, and it is easy to suspend your disbelief while in this world. To our ears, the words used to define this doctrine by various characters can get rather harsh. For example, when Anna begins to deliberately question these beliefs as part of a plan to escape, she gets this response from her teacher:

"Unfair? No, what is unfair is that people like you exist. That your selfish, criminal parents thought nothing of the planet and of their fellow countrymen and produced vermin to feed on our food, drink our water and use our energy."(p. 150).

I really enjoyed the villain's (Margaret Pincent) storyline and didn't expect the twist in the last quarter that explains why she is so cold and heartless. But as soon as the twist is revealed, astute readers will see the conclusion to her story coming a mile away. I wish her back story had been revealed little by little throughout the book, instead of as one big explanatory narrative at the end. But I can see why the author chose to do it this way, because if the reader understands too much about Ms. Pincent too soon, then she becomes too sympathetic and does not serve the role of 'villain' as effectively.

I would divide this book into two sections. To me, each section feels very distinct. The first is the part of the book that takes place at Grange Hall. Anna is ingrained in the system and lives according to the rules she has been taught to follow. The action is slow, mundane, and repetitive - much like her life. The second part of the book starts at Anna's and Peter's escape from Grange Hall and is a marked contrast from the first part. The action picks up, the emotion is heightened, the world is no longer gray and dull but bright and full of possibility. The writing style is the same, as is the tone, but the pacing is much faster and more exciting, and this parallels the journey Anna takes through the book. It clearly displays her transformation from lifeless drone to free-thinking individual.

The climax is brief and over too soon. I wish it had been a bit more drawn out, as it was one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the book. I also wish the scenes leading up to the climax had been a bit meatier. Alot of time is spent on Anna and Peter's plans to escape and journey to London and hardly any time at all is spent on Anna's parents or the new life the children live once they get to London. We hardly learn anything about the Underground Movement, only that Anna's parents are a part of it. Perhaps this will be more fleshed out in the sequel. But as far as the climax goes, the action feels over before it's begun. You just get into the action only to see it all resolved to quickly. The resolution is believable within the context of the story line, but it comes about very suddenly which hurts its credibility.

The dénouement is a satisfying conclusion to Anna's ordeal. It ends the story on an uplifting and hopeful note, and helps us believe there is a chance for the revolutionary yet. The only characters that have depth to them are Anna and Mrs. Pincent. Anna's peers at Grange Hall are introduced to us, but them seem made of cardboard, barely two dimensional. Perhaps this is intentional, as well-rounded characters have motivations, opinions, fears, dreams, aspirations, desires, and so forth. The Surpluses of Grange Hall are taught to have none of these. They are told they do not deserve them. So to the reader they appear lifeless and flat, even if they fill the roles of bully and victim. The only other Surplus that feels real is Sheila, since she insists she is legal and is determined to find a way back to her parents. She exhibits a desire and an opinion about her oppression. The only way the reader sees Anna as anything other than a drone is through her illicit suede pink journal that she hides in a wall crevice of the bathroom. This is the vehicle through which we see Anna's reflection on her situation, as well as extent of her indoctrination. She truly believes the lies she has been told.

Although there is a strong attraction between Anna and Peter, there is not much romance. Despite the popularity of romance in teen fiction right now, this books works better without it because it turns the reader's focus to other issues. The premise, the plot, and the themes of this story take precedent over romance, which is a nice change from your run-of-the-mill relationship-centered teen fiction with a little fantasy thrown in to make it interesting. When Peter arrives at Grange Hall, Anna is at first offended by his blatant refusal to accept his position as a Surplus and to Learn Your Place, as they say. When Peter talks to Anna about his point of view, his communication style is direct and forceful:

"'Anna, we've got as much right to be on this planet as the Mrs Pincents of this world. More right. They're the ones who have outstayed their welcome by living for ever and they're blaming us for it.'
Peter's eyes were flashing and Anna looked at him with terror. What he'd just said was blasphemous. He'd be flogged if anyone heard him. She would too, just for listening." (p. 69)

Peter's stringent demeanor and radical ideas clash with Anna's ordered world, and she automatically rejects his views:

"Anna stared at Peter, then stood up, only to discover that her legs were shaking. How dare Peter call her a slave?...
'You're the one that believes crap, Peter. I'm a Prefect. A Prefect. In six months I'll be a Valuable Asset. You can ruin your own life, but you're not ruining mine. Try and escape if you want, but I don't want anything to do with it. I don't want anything to do with you, either.'" (p. 70).  

Eventually, though, she cannot suppress her fascination with him any longer and despite her rigorous training to be a Valuable Asset and work as a servant to Legals the rest of her life, she hears Peter's version of a better world and yearns for something more:

"The truth was that Peter was a window through which Anna could glimpse the world outside, and the temptation to keep looking was quite overwhelming." (p. 62)

By the very end of the story her transformation is complete. Although her journey of self-discovery is far from finished, she realizes the value of her life and of the effect Peter has had on her life:

 "'If it wasn't for you, I'd just be Surplus Anna. I'd be nothing. It is wasn't for you, I'd never have even known what it's like to have a friend...'" (p. 265)

Thought-provoking themes:

This type of literature falls into the Dystopian category of science fiction. The opposite of a perfect Utopia, the protagonist lives in a future where the human condition has deteriorated and life is very bleak. I have not read much of this kind of literature, but I think it appeals to many people because it is a vision of what could happen if we forget ourselves and turn away from our humanity. It is a warning, in a way, of what could happen if we ignore the gifts of the environment and become consumed by greed and power. I certainly found it intriguing.

This book deals heavily with ideas of indoctrination, which can be construed as a form of brainwashing. It teaches us that although we may be brought up one way and accept it because it is all we have ever known, the mind is still curious for the beyond. We may reject unfamiliar lifestyles or beliefs at first because they are foreign to us, but even the most indoctrinated of us, like Anna, will run towards the light of a better existence if our eyes are open to it.

One of the most prevalent messages or themes in the book is the value of a life lived. Every person wants to know that their life has meaning, that they exist for a purpose. If we suddenly are able to live forever, does that meaning go away? If we are considered surplus and are unwanted from the moment we're born, then we must believe our existence is nothing but meaningless. When thought about in these terms, this book is very dark indeed. Mrs. Sharpe, the Legal who helps Anna and Peter escape to London, ponders how no new ideas are developed anymore and people have become complacent. So, if we have all the time in the universe to do something with our lives, we may never do anything. Human being are eternal procrastinators. If we never do anything with our lives, if we never ascend to a higher understanding or to a higher plain of existence, how can our lives have meaning? We would become hollow shells. A life has meaning because it has a beginning, middle and end. On the other end of the scale, if we are told our life is meaningless and will end unceremoniously, how do we cope with being alive? I think if this was a real life situation, the House Matron at Grange Hall would have had a much higher rate of psychological conditions and perhaps even suicides. Despite our animal instinct for self-preservation, these types of tragedies occur because as human beings we are able to reason. We are able to think about these abstract ideas and come to such grim but logical conclusions. But maybe, because of my own knowledge of these issues, I am thinking too complexly about it. If we are indoctrinated to a certain way of thinking, do we simply accept that as the way things are? Would any of those children question their situation? Not if they are taught not to question, I suppose. I think the most poignant part of the book in regards to this theme happens just before the plot climax. It is definitely the most meaningful part of the book, and as such, makes the climax of the storyline almost an after thought. It is the moment that Anna realizes her life has meaning and she understands that no one is surplus to anything. The way in which she comes to this realization may seem obvious and predictable, but doing it any other way would have seemed fake. It reveals to us the very core of our nature. But I won't reveal it here, you'll have to read the book to discover it, if you haven't guessed it already.

But in a way, the Legals do give the Surpluses a reason for living. They must toil and submit their whole lives to pay Mother Nature back for the sins of their parents. By their work they are redeemed, and this gives them a purpose for working. Mother Nature will forgive their sin of existence if they work hard for those who are allowed to be alive. This is another theme that has plagued humankind since time immemorial. A heavily religious theme, it is one of the issues at the core of the human condition.

The book talks a lot about how Surpluses view their parents. Mrs. Pincent believes that getting the Surpluses to hate their parents is the key to Learning Their Place. Anna articulates this idea most clearly when discussing it with Peter:

"'You really hate your parents?' he asked her.
'Of course I hate them, its all their fault.'
'What is?'
Anna sighed. Sometimes Peter could be really dim. 'Me being here. Being responsible. Paying back Mother Nature for their Sins. Whatever you say, the Declaration was introduced for a reason and my parents abused Mother Nature's benevolence. They make me sick...They deserve to go back to prison and stay there for the rest of their lives. Now just shut up about it.'" (p. 65-6)

The theme of the child paying for the sins of the parents is so strong and poignant in The Declaration because it is portrayed in a very literal form, and is one of the many reasons this book is so thought-provoking and compelling.

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