Breadwinner

Katniss Everdeen is the breadwinner for her family. In a series called The Hunger Games the significance of her role can’t be stressed enough. Katniss (named after an edible root) provides for her family after her father is killed in a mining accident. When her younger sister Prim (short for Primrose) is selected in the reaping for the Hunger Games, Katniss protects her by volunteering to take her place. Leaving her defenseless family in the care of her hunting partner, Gale Hawthorne, Katniss joins Peeta Mellark, the male dedicate from District 12, in a love triangle, er, that is to say, a battle to the death.

I bought into the concept of the first book – America reshaped as Panem, a Capitol and its twelve tributary districts, each one forced to send two teenaged gladiators into an arena to fight for their survival/the Capitol’s televised amusement – and the characters. Katniss is a likeable (loveable, according to both Gale and Peeta) protagonist, believable as a 16 year old girl who can look out for herself, yet one who can’t see the way others look at her. The first-person narration maintains the necessary degree of suspended disbelief for both the narrator and the reader. The Hunger Games struck me as a professional composition, not mere popular fiction.

By winning the Hunger Games Katniss provides her family with a new home and a life of plenty, but the story doesn’t end there. In Catching Fire she takes on a new role as an inspiration to the nation; not as a girl from lowly District 12 who overcame all odds, but as a girl who openly defied the Capitol and was rewarded for it. To Katniss it was a desperate act of survival, but to the viewing public at large it was an act of defiance. This becomes apparent to Katniss as she and Peeta embark on a Victory Tour that rapidly unravels into a crackdown tour. Then comes an announcement: to mark the 75th Hunger Games previous victors will be sent back into the arena. The president is determined to see Katniss buy it on the big screen. If the odds were against her in the first go-round they are stacked against her this time. Naturally she defies the odds and the president yet again.

I enjoyed Catching Fire, perhaps even more than The Hunger Games. Seeing the implications of her actions made the entire idea more plausible. Katniss the victor did not get to live out her days in luxury; nor did she suffer the burden of being a mentor to subsequent competitors. Instead she became a catalyst, the Girl on Fire. I liked what I saw of the foment of rebellion, and I liked the second arena more than the first, which was too well suited to her abilities and comfort zone (if such a term can be applied to a hostile environment where everyone and everything is out to get you).

Another role is thrust upon Katniss in book three; as the title suggests, she becomes the Mockingjay, the voice of the resistance. Like Rosie the Riveter, she is the face of the freedom fighters. Whisked away to the safety and seclusion of District 13, Katniss wages a war of words with none other than Peeta, a captive of the Capitol. Eventually the talking stops and the real fighting begins, as Katniss and a team of commandos (including Gale and Peeta) negotiate the death traps hidden on the very streets of the Capitol.

I understand the plot-driven need to place Katniss in another arena, but this felt cheapened to me. It reminded me of the death courses my friend Ryan and I used to draw when we were bored in school. We had a stick figure on a skateboard (alas, poor Melvin, we knew thee well) whom we would compel through the most-contrived series of death traps we could devise. Ultimately I felt like Collins was the Head Gamesmaker and Katniss was her pawn.

Somehow the professional writing that was so evident at the beginning of the series was lacking at the end. Collins stoops so far as to have one of the characters reveal a major inspiration for the series by explaining the meaning of the phrase panem et circenses (Latin for ‘bread and circuses’) to Katniss. As an author I find that informative, but I’d prefer to find it in an interview with the author, not in the pages of the book. As a reader I was disappointed that the name Panem, rather than being a cool derivation of Pan-America, was actually just lifted from the Latin phrase. Bread and the Hunger Games, get it? I might have liked that if I had figured it out on my own, but having it shoved in my face bothered me as both a consumer and a craftsman.

Here’s another phrase to throw out there while we’re at it: deus ex machina. Literally it translates as the ‘ghost in the machine,’ although in literature it refers to a ready-made solution to a seemingly insurmount- able obstacle. A secret underground militarized district that’s been preparing to overthrow the government, for example. While it is true to character to keep Katniss as a figurehead and not the true leader of the rebellion, I would have preferred to see Districts 1-12 revolt rather than District 13 superimposed over the picture. As anyone familiar with George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (let’s face it, who isn’t?) knows, the revolutionary force often becomes the authority it replaces. Apparently Collins is aware of this theory, as the new regime installed by District 13 votes to continue holding the Hunger Games, using the children of the Capitol as dedicates. Thus there is no true revolution, only a changing of the guard.

In his ‘April Theses’ Vladimir Lenin promised the Russian people bread, land, worker control, and peace. Whether he delivered on these promises is moot; he told the people what they wanted to hear. The Bolsheviks were ruthless when it came time to seize and retain power, but they did try to rally the population. Sadly a similar platform never enters into the political scheme in Mockingjay. For all of the emphasis on using Katniss as a mouthpiece, all she gets to say is “fight back” without any mention of the ideals for which the people are fighting, as she’s never given any.

In reading this series I hoped to learn some lessons I could apply in writing my own treatise on rebellion, and I did. I had not given adequate consideration to the role of propaganda in winning the hearts and minds of the people; given that the rebellion in Grandpa Art is more about right than might, an effective propaganda campaign would be critical. That is the message from Mockingjay I will attempt to mimic and make my own.

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