Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Children in the Aftermath

The Pack
by Tom Pow

New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press, 2006, ©2004

Tom Pow's The Pack is like a children's primer for Cormac McCarthy. It is a story of desperation and identity, set in a bleak, post apocalyptic setting which is just recognizable enough to be truly disturbing even to veteran fans of the genre. This book occupies a nebulous place between childrens' and young adult literature; though it is ostensibly about children, its themes are somewhat more mature than typical juvenile fiction. Pow's writing style does not coddle his readers, whatever their age, and the subject matter is starker still.

The story in The Pack centers around three feral, orphan children living with wild dogs on the edge of what's left of civilization. The children are named after the storefronts they were found in front of, Bradley, Victor and Floris (the 't' was broken), while the dogs are meaningfully named Hunger, Fearless and Shelter. The pack survives under the tutelage of an old woman, whose stories teach them to retain the last shreds of their humanity. When Floris is kidnapped by a local warlord, the rest are forced into a quest to save her, for their own sakes as well as hers.

There are two reasons that this book is best for advanced readers: one, the story is written in a tone of unflinching brutality, devoid of comfort or ease; two, the literary eloquence of the book, while beautiful, can also be abstract in the extreme, and requires a well-developed sense of reading comprehension. The brutality comes in several forms; one of the crucial turns in the plot centers around a pair of dog fights, described in graphic detail, and several times during the story, characters defend some atrocious behavior by claiming it was necessary to survive.

As for literary abstraction, the main character, Bradley, explicitly follows the form of the Hero's Journey. Though the term itself is never directly invoked, the constant references to stories and dreams (not to mention the narrative style) make it clear that this is the form the pack's movements take. Also, the question of identity is brought into play, as is the barrier between human and animal, boy and girl, civilization and collapse. Finally, there is a level of social commentary which I won't describe in detail, because it is integral to the "big reveal" at the end of the book. Suffice it to say, the Invisible City and its surrounding Zones bear a shocking resemblance to the world as it already is, placed in a smaller sandbox and given a different context.

To what extent the childrens' world is actually "post apocalyptic", in the traditional sense, is never made perfectly clear beyond vague allusions to the "Dead Times". By the end of The Pack, the nature of the world these children live in is less defined than it was at the beginning, and that mystery is part of its charm. In the words of the old woman, repeated as a refrain throughout the book, the world is made of dust and ashes, but stories cannot crumble, burn or be broken.

No comments:

Post a Comment