Article 5, a Flawed Pastiche

Article 5 (2012)
Kristen Simmons
Tor Books ISBN # 978-0765329588
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Article 5 is the latest entry into the dystopia market for teen and young adult readers. It’s the debut novel from Kristen Simmons, a social worker-turned-writer, and it bears many of the earmarks of a first book, particularly a not-so-original story and less-than-sparkling prose. It is, in essence, a mash-up for teens of several much better books: Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale (1985), Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Just for good measure, the book’s central relationship is vaguely reminiscent of The Hunger Games.

The book won’t win any originality awards, but it’s a decent pastiche. Its setting is a not-so-distant future in which the United States has been devastated by an unexplained war. Many of the cities have been abandoned, those that remain have degenerated into self-contained neighborhoods beyond which one does not wish to stray (á la Parable of the Sower), and the Bill of Rights has been scrapped in favor of something called the Moral Statutes. The new governing authority is one part theocratic and one part military junta–think a Christian version of the Taliban.

We meet Lori Whittman, a freewheeling/free loving single mom living in what used to be Memphis, presumably in one of those suburbs populated by holier-than-thou evangelicals. In post-apocalyptic America, those Christian patients now run the asylum–literally. Women are now fair game and Lori is about to be arrested by the Federal Bureau of Reformation–whose officers are nicknamed the Moral Militia, MM for short–and sent away to a reeducation center for her ex post facto sins. Moreover, Lori’s transgression of Article 5 morals codes also taints her daughter, 17-year-old Ember Miller, who will be sent to a reform school until she is 18. She will be expected to cleanse her spirit, abandon her will, wear modest clothing, defer to men, and conform to the patriarchy that governs the United States. (That’s the Handmaiden’s Tale part.) To make matters worse, the arrest force includes Chase Jennings, a young man on whom Ember once had a serious crush, but is now a dead-eyed MM foot soldier.

As in all such books, Ember is too strong-willed to adapt to the Dickensian reform school to which she’s sent, or to put up with its sadistic head mistress. She is fixated upon escaping and rescuing her mother, though readers are as clueless as Ember on how she’s going to do this. Chase aids her flight, but can she trust him? (Think the dynamics of Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games.) The two set off across burnt over and burnt out parts of country, where they will have to fend off desperate postwar survivors who would be happy to rob and kill them. They are making their way toward South Carolina, allegedly a refuge beyond the control of the MM. And, of course, they meet with Resistance fighters. (The Road, anybody?)

We’ve seen all this before in much better literary form and with far greater dramatic development. Simmons’ novel has logic holes through which one could drive several commandeered vehicles. For all its obvious flaws, though, the book is a breezy read–a classic guilty pleasure. Grade it a B for pastiche, a C for drama, and a D for originality. It’s also pretty much a PG-13 book devoid of sex or graphic descriptions of violence. Assuming you’re a non-evangelical parent, the book could be used to discuss with teens important issues such as the role of women in society, who defines morality, and who watches the moral watchers. Adult readers will probably find it little more than light airplane reading that sends them back to Margaret Atwood. Who can begrudge a book that renews interest in that fine North American woman of letters? --Rob Weir

PS– ­While I’m handing out grades, how about an F for our current state of society? As an educator, I’m alarmed by how few young people have the slightest belief in the possibility of utopia, but can easily conjure a Hunger Games/Article 5 nightmare future. What does it say about our society when vampires, zombies, and a Mad Max future populate the teen reading world?

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