Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thrillers for Middle Readers: Margaret Peterson Haddix

Like adults, there is a certain sub-set of young readers for whom "what happens next" is what's important in a book. Whether it's the typical mystery in which a crime begs to be solved or the thriller which has an unknown zone that won't let the reader go, the mystique of the unresolved keeps those pages turning. Margaret Peterson Haddix is an author whose books drop the reader right in the middle of the unknown zone immediately and keep him or her there to the end.

Haddix is probably best known for her Shadow Children series. Like many of her books, these stories take place in a near-future setting in which novel social forces impinge on daily life. In the first book in the series, Among the Hidden, drought and famine have prompted the government to make third children illegal and subject to execution. Into this situation Luke is born. His parents are able to give him an almost normal early childhood until the woods which surround their home are destroyed by suburban development. Unable to play outside, Luke is a prisoner inside his own house. Luke accepts his isolation, staying away from windows and keeping silent during the day when his parents and siblings are at work or school, until the day he glimpses a child's face in the window next door. Luke manages to befriend this hidden third child, Jen, and from her learns of an entire underground of shadow children like himself. When Jen decides to "out" herself and join a resistance movement of third children to confront the government, Luke is too fearful to join her. Although Jen dies in the government retribution against their march, Luke learns to hope that his isolation may someday end.

Further books in the series are Among the Impostors, Among the Betrayed, Among the Barons, Among the Brave, Among the Enemy, and finally Among the Free. In these sequels Luke is recruited by the underground alliance of parents of third children to attend a boarding school which accepts illegal children under assumed names. There Luke secretly becomes part of the resistance which infiltrates and ultimately brings down the rule of the Population Police. Throughout the series the reader wonders if Luke himself will survive and if Jen's sacrifice will finally be justified. In Among the Free, justice finally brings down the fascist government, but not before Luke has to deal with the political and cultural chaos which follow the fall of any civil order, however cruel.

In two other novels, Haddix again deals with the theme of civil order and individual freedom. Running Out of Time begins with Jessie, living in what she believes is Clifton, an ordinary 1840's village, until a diphtheria epidemic forces her mother to reveal that they are living in a reconstructed historical preserve, in the actual year 1996, and not free to move outside their town for any reason. Ma asks Jessie to sneak out of Clifton and call someone who may be able to bring modern medicines before many of the "settlers" die. Dressed in her mom's '80's jeans and t-shirt, Jessie must manage to deal with the dangers of the twentieth century while she tries to save her family from a disease of the previous century.

In Double Identity, Bethany is hastily uprooted and deposited by her tearful but unresponsive parents with an aunt she has never known. Bethany eventually learns that she is a clone of her dead sister Elizabeth and that her parents are trying to protect her from the backer of the cloning process who seeks her to promote his own financial ends. As she becomes frightened by the stalking of this unknown man and overwhelmed by the identify crisis of being, almost inconceivably, both her dead sister and herself, Bethany has to gain a maturity beyond her thirteen years.

All of these books are real page turners which sometimes require a "willing suspension of disbelief," but within their compelling twists of plot, there are powerful underlying themes which deal with the most complex issues of our time--population growth and its consequent climate change, individual versus societal rights, and the effects of science on personal liberty.



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