When The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins first became “the book” to read, I refused to buy into the hype. Not just because it was so overhyped, but because by then I had given up on dystopian and post-apocalyptic entertainment. It is just too depressing. Unless there are zombies, because, well, I love zombies. I think I can also tolerate zombie-infested dystopian fare like The Walking Dead because it’s so unreal, whereas something like The Book of Eli has a bleak sort of realism to it. Or maybe it’s just because I’m a walking contradiction.
Then about a month ago, my daughter asked for permission to read it. I wanted to read it first before deciding, so I broke down and downloaded the trilogy when I saw it was on sale for $5.
One chapter in and I was hooked.
If you haven’t read the book or the series and don’t want to be spoiled, then stop reading here and move on to the next A to Z Challenge blog. I would really hate to ruin the plot surprises for anyone!
There is so much to discuss about these books–the complex themes of war and oppression, poverty and gluttony, Christian allegories and symbolism. But I just want to talk a little bit about the main character, Katniss, and how after reading (and re-reading) the series, I’ve come to appreciate her as a positive role model for young girls.
After her father’s death when she was just twelve, Katniss has to assume responsibility for her family’s survival. Her mother moves into a nearly catatonic state and it’s up to Katniss to make sure that she and her little sister are taken care of. It’s a difficult task just staying alive; the poverty in District 12 is unrelenting and Katniss nearly succumbs to it, but for the actions of a young Peeta Mallark (her eventual partner Tribute). Peeta (the baker’s son) risks his mother’s wrath to give the starving Katniss bread, a move that literally saves her life. But sort of to Katniss’s chagrin, as Peeta’s continuing acts of self-sacrifice for her both vex and perplex her:
Will I never stop owing him?
She is frustrated by these feelings of owing him because she has a deep abiding sense of loyalty, as we see through her interactions with Prim and Gale, Darius the Peacekeeper and Greasy Sae, even with Finnick, her style team, and Cinna. It doesn’t occur to her that she should (or could) betray any of them. She sees it as a weakness, owing someone. But it’s really a character strength that she cares that much.
Katniss, who knows only the pain of loving someone and being responsible for them, can’t understand why Peeta keeps putting himself out there for her. She can’t believe that he is truly in love with her. I had to keep reminding myself that she is just a young girl with a stilted emotional upbringing, because as an outside observer, I could plainly see Peeta’s devotion. As grown up and independent as Katniss is, she is still just a naive teenager. As Peeta remarks, on more than one occasion:
She has no idea. The effect she can have.
She is humble, almost to a fault. She can’t believe anyone other than her family and her best friend could love her, they simply “deal with” her. Humility is one of those traits that you tend to be born with or not. And if you’re not born with it, it’s awfully hard to learn later in life.
Katniss, who is named after the plant, is a skilled archer. (No coincidence that the katniss plant is also known as the arrowhead because of the shape of its leaves.) It’s this ability that allows her to be self-sufficient, to be able to provide and protect. She is proud of her ability, but not to the point of bragging. It’s also a talent that she uses to benefit others. It’s how she gives of herself. My daughter has some amazing talents of her own, and I hope that she can see how she use those talents selflessly as Katniss does.
The most admirable thing about Katniss, though, is her morality. She understands right and wrong, and she acts to always do right. You could say that by hunting illegally, she is breaking the law, which in and of itself may be immoral. But I would disagree and point to Thoreau’s treaty on Civil Disobedience. Which is the right thing to do? Follow the rules and allow people to suffer and die? Or treat those rules as unjust, and do the moral thing by breaking them in order to save others? For Katniss, there’s not even a question in her mind what the right path is. The same is true when she decorates Rue’s body with flowers. It’s an act of defiance to the Captiol, which she knows, but she does it anyway at her own risk because it’s a matter of respect for the girl and her district. In Catching Fire, she fans the flames of rebellion by honestly showing her gratitude to the people in Rue’s District 11. But again, she chose the right path.
In Mockingjay, Katniss is being used as a pawn by the rebellion’s leaders, particularly President Coin. Coin sees that Katniss is really a threat and does what she can to use her and then render her powerless. What Coin doesn’t understand is that Katniss isn’t after anything grand. She merely wants to right the wrongs of the Capitol and make life better for all of Panem. When she discovers that Coin’s malicious and iimmoral acts lead to innocent children (including Katniss’s sister) being murdered, she realizes that Panem will just be trading one tyrant (President Snow) for another (President Coin). She performs a final act of rebellion that ultimately saves the nation, but nearly puts her to death. A death she was ready to accept.
This bravery, combined with a nearly perfect moral compass and fierce loyalty tempered by humility, makes Katniss the kind of woman we want our daughters to grow up to be. A real Girl on Fire.