Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

I got this one as an ARC in New Orleans, but technically it came out a few days ago. I read it last week and finished it on an airplane. I haven’t been blogging this past week because I was in Plymouth, MA, near Cape Cod with some of my best friends, and some of the best people in the world (college friends I hadn’t seen in a long time).  I was a little distracted. I did read one book on the beach though that I will probably make a post about tomorrow. Today has been about job interview preparations.
Any way, putting my life aside, I was excited to read this book because there is a very nice blurb from a Suzanne Collins on the cover; she describes the book as “…an excellent, taut debut novel.” And I met the author in New Orleans, and he was a really nice guy. This is definitely one of the ARC’s I have signed.
The book is about 15-year-old Steven and the way he survives in a very realistic sounding future dystopia version of the U.S. The book takes place after what people call the eleventh plague (which is like a really bad kind of influenza), kills off 2/3 of the world’s population. And the plague only happens after a major nuclear war between the U.S. and China. The book starts with Steven and his father burying his grandfather.  Steven and his small (now even smaller) family travel the country salvaging goods to trade (which reminded me of the bleak life situations in Ship Breaker). In saving another family in trouble, Steven’s father becomes badly injured, and most likely brain damaged. And just when Steven thinks he’s on his own, he’s “rescued” by a group of men from a place called Settler’s Landing.
The men introduce him to a town setup with houses, farms, and even a school and medical center that has actual medicine. Steven’s dad gets looked at by the nurse, and Steven slowly becomes friends with the town, a place he believes too good to be true. Steven soon grows to be more than friends with a girl named Jenny, a girl ostracized for her clear, Chinese looks. The two even decide to run away from it all at one point, but things quickly change when the lives of those in the town are at stake because of a stupid prank Steven did earlier.
This book moves fast. It’s filled with action. Between rescuing slaves, escaping slavers, salvaging goods, learning to love a whole new family, watching over his dad, planning escape, falling in love, and standing up for what is right, Steven has some classic hero qualities to him that make him a great main character. There’s violence and bullying, too.
Yet, I did not really enjoy this one as much as I was hoping to. It was way too predicable. I was predicting everything with Jenny. I was predicting everything with the dad. I was pretty much predicting the whole plot, and was never wrong. The other thing that really irritated me was all the descriptions of things like decaying Starbucks’ or McDonalds’ arches. Steven never went to a Starbucks or a McDonalds because they were before his time. I really don’t think he’d be making all these many comparisons to what his parents must have lived through only in regards to pop culture. Clearly, these parts are to somehow relate to young readers more, when really it makes me feel like the author is saying young readers are so materialistic that they just need passages about these things.
I would have preferred more story and less chances to try to connect with youth. Also, there was a lot of comparison throughout the whole thing about living in a town like suburb with an actual school versus living as a nomad. Yet, every detail was about the new school/town life being what it was, and there was not as much detail about Steven’s other life as I wanted. I found his scavenging life a lot more interesting than all the many passages about what going to school for the first time was like or what staying in a house for the first time was like. Clearly, the author is telling young people to step back and imagine what life would be like with no nice neighborhoods, no schools, no baseball teams, and no Starbucks. And this felt a little too preachy to me; it was too much of a feel grateful for what you have book. And this isn’t always a bad thing; it’s a bad thing when it’s obvious. Good books, especially good YA books can make readers feel grateful for their lives without being obvious or preachy.
I give this one a 6/10. And I know not to always trust what YA authors have to say in their blurbs.

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