Friday, December 26, 2008

Book Review: Nation

by Terry Pratchett

Mau is returning home from his manhood test when the wave comes. All the boys from the Nation, an island culture, must spend a month alone on the Boys' Island when they reach the age of adulthood, and they have to find a way to return to Nation on their own. When Mau left the Boys' Island in his canoe, he left his boy soul behind; he would receive his man soul in a coming of age ceremony as soon as he returned to Nation. But before he reaches home, a volcanic eruption triggers a tsunami; Mau barely survives, and he returns home to find out that the entire Nation was wiped out. He's lost his boy soul, but never has the chance to get his man soul. Mau is a boy without a soul, and a man without a nation.

Mau isn't alone, though. An English ship crashed on the island in the wave, and the only survivor of the ship is an English girl named Ermintrude, who takes the name Daphne. Ermintrude is from a noble family, and hasn't been taught any skills useful for surviving on a tropical island, but she's a very determined and intelligent young lady, and it doesn't take her long to adapt. Together, the two young people try to find a way to survive and to make sense of the tragedy, and as other refugees start trickling in, to rebuild civilization.

Nation is an incredible book, easily one of the best books of the year. It's hilarious and poignant and incredibly profound. It's a great story of the meeting of two cultures, and the aftermath of a disaster, but it's so much more than that, too. It explores those unanswerable questions that humans have been asking for as long as we've been around: Are there gods, and if so, why do they let tragedies happen? Why do some people die and not others? What makes us human, and what makes a nation? Can science and belief co-exist? It's also a book that explores and challenges many preconceptions.

The characters are wonderfully rich and deep, and often more than they appear at first. Mau, the boy who has no soul, becomes the soul of the Nation, and they in turn become his soul. He's always questioning, and challenging the gods. But he loves his Nation, both the original Nation and the new Nation that he helps to build, and takes personal responsibility for the well-being of the people who depend on him. Daphne appears at first to be the helpless European girl, but it soon becomes apparent that she's anything but helpless. In spite of her training that to do anything useful is unladylike, she's incredibly intelligent and resourceful. She adapts well to life in the Nation and becomes a leader in her own way. The shipwreck really saves her, as it allows her to grow in ways she never would have been able to grow in England, or even in the island English colony where she was headed to join her father.

Beyond Daphne and Mau, there is a delightful cast of supporting characters, from Pilu, with his golden tongue, to Mrs. Gurgle, an older woman with no teeth who needs her food chewed for her, and who is more than she appears. Even the island and the creatures on it are characters; I especially loved the grandfather birds, and their arch-enemy, the parrot who survived the shipwreck.

There's so much to love about Nation, and I think that adults and teens will love it. But it will have special appeal to those teens who always seem to be asking the difficult questions, and seeking answers about life. Nation doesn't provide any answers, but it does give a lot of food for thought.

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