For those of us immersed in the world of children's books, yesterday was a big day: the third and final book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy came out. I bought my copy on the way home from work, then walked into the house and began to read, skipping dinner to finish. I went to bed thinking about Mockingjay, I woke up thinking about it. So no, I won't wait till my regularly scheduled weekend slot to review this book. (Note my lack of spoilers below, which was hard to pull off!)
Just about any other writer, having established the wealthy, hedonistic Capitol led by evil President Snow in oppressing the twelve outlying districts, and having delivered Katniss into the hands of the rebels, would have then presented the rebels' heroic fight against the Capitol forces most heroically, with Katniss as their mascot. And that's—sort of what happens. But this is Suzanne Collins. I am now in awe of Suzanne Collins. Because she immediately proceeds to have the rebel forces, led by Alma Coin, the hardnosed president of supposedly nonexistent District 13, use Katniss in much the same way President Snow used her.
Twice in the last book and once in this book that I can recall, another character comments that Katniss doesn't know the effect she has on people. This may seem a bit too pointed. Furthermore, anyone reading Katniss's account of these events can see her flaws so clearly that they might have trouble understanding the effect Katniss has on others. So just what is that effect?
Mockingjay confirms that Katniss is a folk hero in spite of the efforts of leaders like Snow and now Coin to mold her into a Folk Hero. That's because Katniss believes in things like justice and kindness, values instilled in her by her parents (even her troubled mother, a healer) and by her own struggles to survive equitably in a tough world. Katniss tries to do the right thing no matter how hard it is, driven by her own moral compass even as others work to manipulate her into serving their ends.
Collins never takes the easy road. Katniss has been damaged, and will be damaged again. She suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and various physical ailments, more of them as the book goes on. The rebels' work to patch her back together becomes increasingly ironic and symbolic as Katniss, blown about by a detonation of agendas and deliberate attempts by President Snow to destroy her both psychologically and physically, becomes still more stubborn about what truly matters from moment to moment.
The plot twists in Mockingjay are jaw-dropping and satisfying. I'll admit I made the mistake of thinking as I bought the book, Hmm, this one looks smaller. How much can this writer accomplish, and is she going to give her story short shrift? Is she worn out?
The answer is a resounding NO.
Suzanne Collins masterfully offers up both an action-packed, suspenseful dystopian adventure and a symbolic, theme-packed commentary on age-old and contemporary social issues. Most notably, she questions the ethics of war and of our new media's determination to transform dimensional individuals into flat, packaged types for the sake of money and power. This author refuses to glamorize heroism, war, power, or celebrity.
She also refuses to glamorize romance. In Mockingjay, Collins addresses what it means to love someone, bringing up the idea that people change—does that make love more, or less likely? Is loving someone selfish, unselfish, or both? And, paradoxically, does loving someone mean saving them, or killing them? Suzanne Collins is not one for simple answers. Katniss plays out the complexity of human interactions in this book; even her terrible relationship with President Snow takes on unexpected meaning.
All of this comes to us in the form of one increasingly tortured girl's desire to make a good world for the little cluster of people she cares about, a goal that appears more and more unlikely as Mockingjay progresses. Along the way, not all of Katniss's choices may seem wise, but each of them will strike readers as true.
Few authors have used symbols so well in contemporary YA literature: take a look at what Collins does with those mockingjays, or with white roses, and how she turns the idea of a girl "catching fire" thematically and more literally in a contrived entertainment context on its head. Perhaps most notably, watch how the war becomes a new version of the Hunger Games.
Reviewers have commented that Catching Fire managed to be a better book than The Hunger Games, and now Suzanne Collins pulls off the impossible: Mockingjay takes it a step higher, ending this trilogy powerfully, thought provokingly, achingly well.
Thank you, Ms. Collins.
Note for Worried Parents: All three books are for teens. They include violence, death, much suffering, war, betrayal, torture, and mild references to sex. However, this material is handled gracefully, if painfully, and the Hunger Games books end up being downright inspiring.