Why yes, I did plow right on ahead and read the second and third books of the Hunger Games series! Mostly on my working vacation to RWA Atlanta, on planes, during downtime, late, late into the night because I just couldn’t put the books down and nearly had a panic attack when my Kindle said it was almost out of battery. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Yep. I have only ever read this series back to back to back and in my mind it’s just one book that happens to be split up into different volumes. I feel very sorry for those folks who had to wait for the next installment before they could read each time. In my mind, the story flows continuously throughout the books, even though the events of Mockingjay weren’t anything even remotely like what I expected to happen in that book.
Let’s take a moment to really think about that though. Is it good or bad for an author to throw something completely unexpected at readers? The first time I read the books I didn’t expect the first part of the last book to involve a lot of sitting around in one place, formulating plans and sinking deeper into political machinations. Not at all. I expected action, momentum. And yet, as with the first time, this time Mockingjay was just as unputdownable. Why?
My answer to this question touches on a discussion I got into at RWA with a fellow writer, one who writes urban fantasy-type books not unlike Hunger Games. She had a completely and utterly different take on the book than I did. And a different take even than my journalist friend Alaina did. This writer was actually highly disappointed in the last book because she saw Katniss as a thoroughly unredeemable, unlikable character and the action as flawed. By her take, the protagonist(s) had been destroyed and the assault on the Capitol was a repetitive rehashing of the games.
That is almost a complete 180 difference from the way I see it. Like, so much we were laughing over how differently we saw it.
For me, these books are about a damaged soul being squeezed through impossible hardship, shattered, ripped apart … and being put back together again. I wonder if one of the reasons people get upset with the overall presentation of the book is because they don’t want their heroes to crack. The reality is that Katniss was a seventeen year old girl. She was human. No one could endure what she went through and hold it together.
The other part of the story that stands out so sharply to me—and that others have said they just didn’t see or totally missed—is that the books are about Katniss learning to love and to accept the interdependence that comes with truly loving someone. This angle of the story has everything to do with her father. He’s dead before the book starts, but he’s also one of the most powerful and influential characters in the entire novel.
Katniss’s father (is he ever even named?) was killed in a mining accident. It destroyed Katniss’s mother, which threw Katniss, at age 11 or 12, into his shoes. She hunts because he taught her to hunt. He made her bow. He showed her the places in the woods that are safe to her. In essence, he kept her alive in the Games. The songs he taught her are the ones she sings. She may have been the mockingjay, but it was his song that she was repeating. In the third book she goes back to their home in 12 to get his hunting jacket, then hangs it over a chair in their home in 13 as if to give a sense of his presence. Everything that the Capitol put her through is just a reflection of the agony that any child who loses their father and has to go on and fill his place has felt.
That’s why I love Peeta so much, and why his journey in the third book (trying not to be spoilery here) is so painful to me. Peeta basically pledges his life to Katniss, to love her and protect her. Who was the last person to do that? Not Gale. It was Katniss’s father. But he left her alone, so she can’t handle Peeta’s emotion. And then, right at the moment when Peeta returns (so hard not to be spoilery!), BAM!, all that is taken away from her again.
Maybe it’s because I’m a romance writer and lover, but if the entire book from that point on had been about the struggle to bring Peeta back from where the Capitol put him, I would have been happy as a clam. But the external plot takes over at that point. This fellow writer who I was discussing the books with at RWA said she thought Katniss was selfish and heartless and, as Gale says in the books, picks the boy she couldn’t survive without (which is really cold, as opposed to picking the one she loves or the one she can’t live without), but I absolutely 100% disagree with that idea. And the actual text of the book, Collins’s words, seem to side with me. It isn’t until after she has gone through hell and emerged scarred emotionally and physically, that she can grow up and trust enough to love again. She can let go of her father and accept the love that is being offered to her.
Well, that’s my take, at least. All of the political commentary, action/adventure story, dystopian universe theme stuff is all there, but to me these books are a love story, pure and simple. Or maybe a better way to put it would be to say a learning to love story. But maybe I see it that way because my own life when I was that age was so bitter and torn and devoid of paternal love. I’m not the only one who’s lived that reality though. And the beauty of the Hunger Games books is that there really is a little something for everyone. In my opinion, a book is deemed brilliant when a vast cross-section of people take a vast array of messages from it. Well done, Suzanne Collins!