Allegra Goodman alludes to a number of children's classics in The Other Side of the Island, including Bridge to Terabithia, The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden. It's a risky ploy, inviting comparison to beloved books. But in Goodman's case, it pays off, as this gripping, beautifully written novel may one day join their ranks. A dystopian page-turner, The Other Side of the Island evokes other YA favorites -- in particular, Lois Lowry's The Giver -- books that use well-worn tropes of science fiction and coming-of-age tales to confront adult issues such as authoritarian governments and global warming.
Honor Greenspoon, the young heroine, is 10 when the book opens, sometime in a not-too-distant future. Climate change has devastated our planet. Ninety percent of the population has died in a mega-catastrophe known as the Flood, the continents erased by monstrous tsunamis and rising sea levels. Now, eight years later, the Flood's survivors live on hundreds of scattered islands where reproduction is regulated, recycling is as natural as breathing, and all reading material is censored.
Honor, born in a year when all children's names begin with H, has recently been relocated with her parents to an island in the Tranquil Sea. The family had previously lived as nomads in the Northern Islands, where Honor saw snow and, once, a polar bear. When she mentions this on her first day of school, her teacher's response is frightening:
Mrs. Whyte looked so severe that Honor's heart began pounding.
"We do not lie in this classroom," said Mrs. Whyte. "We do not exaggerate or tell untruths, ever. . . . The Polar Seas and Northern Islands are Enclosed. What does that mean?"
"They're Safe," said Hiroko.
"Secure," said Hildegard.
"They have a ceiling," said Hortense, tossing her blond hair with some importance.
"Yes, they are ceiled," said Mrs. Whyte, smiling, "and because of that, they are enjoying what we call. . ."
"New Weather," chimed the girls."
New Weather is only one of the myriad innovations of Earth Mother's Corporation, the global agency that controls the remnants of humanity. Each day, Honor and her classmates recite Earth Mother's Creed, a mantra Goodman cleverly deploys to satirize not just corporate globalization and organized religion but also the the flakier elements of the environmental movement.
Earth Mother, we learn, was "a simple schoolteacher, a cookie baker. She loved flowers and children and sunshine and song. She believed in Safety First." Her Corporation insists that New Weather has replaced the bad, old weather. The sun always shines on Honor's island. There are no changing seasons, no snow, no spectacular sunsets. Even more oddly, there is no memory of those things. Soon Honor finds herself forgetting her experiences in the North. The island librarian meticulously snips out offending pages from books. There are no sad endings, no mention of blizzards, storms or autumn leaves. Dorothy visits Oz via a dream, not a tornado, and even her last name is changed, from Gale to Dale.
Despite this insistence that the climate is under control, on the island there are hurricane drills. Schoolchildren watch old films that show terrifying images of the destruction wrought by tsunamis. And there are real storms, too, that knock down trees and powerlines and cancel school for days. Afterward, the debris is cleared away by shambling, zombie-like orderlies whose origins are mysterious and, ultimately, horrifying.
Still, for several years Honor does her best to live by Earth Mother's rules. Desperate to fit into her new community, she is mortified by her free-thinking parents, who violate social norms in secretive ways (ignoring curfew, walking to the nearby seashore) and more egregious ones when they have a second child. Honor goes so far as to change her name to Heloise. Only when her parents are Disappeared -- the fate of non-conformists -- does she join forces with a fellow orphan to learn the truth about their supposedly idyllic world.
Goodman, the author of several acclaimed adult novels and a National Book Award finalist, does a stellar job with this, her first book for young readers. The story's dystopia is at once original and frighteningly familiar to anyone conversant in Orwellian doublespeak. And Honor is an appealingly conflicted heroine, torn between her need for acceptance and a growing realization that the price for conformity is not just her own memories, but the lives of those she loves most.
The Other Side of the Island is dark but shot with sly humor, and the narrative grows increasingly satisfying as Earth Mother's web of conspiracies and denial unravels. Goodman has written a bracing, exhilarating novel that manages to be both subversive and optimistic. Earth Mother and Big Brother better watch out.
Elizabeth Hand reviews frequently for Book World. Her most recent novel is Generation Loss.
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