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In the past few months I’ve read several books that have continued to haunt me weeks after I turned the last page. So on Wednesdays in October (the traditional month for haunting), I’ll be posting about some of these books.

None of the books I’ll write about is a horror book per se.  I don’t do vampires and zombies. I seldom even pick up a book with supernatural elements (though I do like time travel – go figure).

The books I’ve chosen have haunted me because of the themes they raise. On reflection, they all deal in one way or another with violence and man’s inhumanity to man. That makes them about worse things than vampires and zombies.

The Hunger Games

The first in my series is The Hunger Games trilogy.

I don’t read much young adult fiction, but I read both The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series this year. But to be frank, the Harry Potter books bored me. The combination of boarding school pranks, puppy love, and wizardry didn’t convince me these kids could represent the forces of righteousness in the battle between good and evil. As a writer, I was impressed with J.K. Rowling’s fantastic world-building, but she simply didn’t persuade me with her story.

By contrast, I was completely drawn into the world of The Hunger Games. Perhaps because the apocalyptic world that Suzanne Collins created seemed more similar to our own world in its horror.

I resisted reading The Hunger Games for a long time. Writer friends had told me that if I wanted to know what teenagers were reading, I had to read The Hunger Games.  But I didn’t much care what teenagers were reading – that’s not my target audience as a writer, and I don’t have teenagers in the house anymore.

Then the Stanford Alumni Association Book Salon picked The Hunger Games for its book last May. This was my impetus to read the first book in the series. It was compelling enough that I read the second and third books also.

SPOILER ALERT – THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN THE HUNGER GAMES.

In many ways, The Hunger Games is a typical dystopian novel – full of poverty and cruelty. But unlike many dystopias, what was particularly horrific in this book was the emphasis on violence as entertainment, the spectacle and pageantry that turned killing into a game.

These themes emerged in the first book in the trilogy, when politicians send the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and other teenagers into a game, the object of which is to remain the last person alive in the fantastical arena. Like our reality TV programs pushed to their ultimate conclusion.

Katniss and her partner survive by challenging the rules of the game established by their government. For their courage, they are sent back into the arena for a second time in the second book, Catching Fire.

In the later books, Katniss participates in a rebellion against the corrupt government that created the games, and the rebellion grows into full-scale revolution. These books deal more with the horror of war and the corruption in both the old and new governments – haunting themes, whether in fiction or in fact.

The themes of violence and corruption are indeed evident in the factual world around us. Nation after nation in recent years has overthrown one corrupt government only to struggle to establish a new government strong enough to withstand the tribalism and parochialism of internal factions.

As I read The Hunger Games books and reflected on our world today, I came away wondering whether humans are meant to be nations or tribes. Should peoples split into smaller homogenous units to govern themselves, or should they seek to bind diverse groups into larger units through coercion and compromise? How do governments accommodate both self-interest and national interest?

Heavy questions to come out of a young adult novel.

The haunting nature of The Hunger Games trilogy lasted until the last pages of the third book, Mockingjay. At the end of the saga, Katniss and her fellow rebels finally overthrow the government. But Katniss loses the two things that meant the most to her in the world – her sister’s life and her friendship (and potential romance) with Gale, whose weapons were probably the instrument of her sister’s death.

I was left to ask myself: What good does it do to save your world, if doing so causes you to lose what made your world worth saving?

Each of us has moments in our lives when we make decisions that cost us, in the hopes of creating a better life as a result of our decision. When do we, like Katniss, take actions that later cost us what we hoped to achieve?

Haunting questions, for sure.

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