Nation by Terry Pratchett
My rating: A+ (Superlative!)
By way of introduction, let’s blame all of this on Julie Davis, the indefatigable contributor to the Catholic Writer’s Guild blog. Along the way, Julie described a Young Adult novel, Farmer in the Sky (1953) by Robert A. Heinlein that aroused my curiosity. Since then I’ve read other Heinlein books and began a discussion with the local librarian who just happens to love science fiction. She brought me to the dark corner, under the stairs where the sci-fi books, wrapped in brown paper, reside, carefully guarded by live snakes, spiders and the occasional gargoyle. Through her informed enthusiasm, she personally introduced me to the work of Terry Pratchett. I’m currently Pratchett-binging.
Pratchett’s Nation tightly weaves living “story” vines so every thought touch all the others. Maybe Nation is a romance novel? It’s certainly a love story and for sure a deeply spiritual adventure. It may not answer the universal spiritual questions, but powerfully asks them: Does God exist? How can God permit evil? What is God like? What is the purpose and efficacy of prayer?
Terry Pratchett’s Young Adult novel introduces numbers 139 and 140 in line of succession to the British throne. The drama intensifies as numbers 1-138 quickly meet their untimely deaths. Fortunately, 139 and 140 are relatively safe if you ignore the mutiny, tsunami, shipwreck, abandonment on a devastated island, cannibals and an upbringing that prevents 140 (Daphne) from doing anything practical, although she’s quite the student of 19th Century Science and sees it as the preferred alternative to religion. You might say she’s a proper nob lass with a ton of baggage, not the least of which was the earlier loss of her mother and newborn brother and the domination of herself and her father (139) by her paternal grandmother. Daphne’s propriety extends to her wearing both pantaloons and unmentionables beneath her grass skirt, and of course the cleanest blouse she could manage under the circumstances.
Mau, the Pacific Islander, like Daphne, loses his entire family and community while they await the completion of his coming of age mission. Trapped with neither a boy’s nor a man’s soul, Locaha, the god of death, worshipped by the head-hunting cannibals, chases after Mau. The ghosts of Mau’s Grandfathers haunt the incomplete and untrained Mau, urging him to restore spiritual order. He’s angry with his nagging ancestors and the divine power that allowed such destruction. Fate brings Mau, the clever survivor together with the “ghost girl” (Daphne). They soon save each other’s lives, find ways of communicating and deepening their mutual affection. Daphne is sensitive to the ghostly voices of Mau’s Grandmothers, who share a message totally different from that of Mau’s Grandfathers. The question arises: Can the successor to the British Crown find happiness with a “primitive” islander? In reality, Mau is no less a royal than Daphne. He is the Nation.
Mau and Daphne grow as other survivors arrive along with their problems. Mau finds milk for a starving infant on an island with none of the usual sources of milk, and lives to tell about it. Daphne delivers babies. Following directions in the wrecked ship’s medical manual she saws off a man’s shattered leg below the knee and dips the stump into a bucket of hot tar. Mau asks, “Didn’t that hurt?” Daphne shrugged, “Not if you lift the bucket by the handle.” Mercifully, Mrs. Gurgle, a balding, wrinkled, toothless elder crouching in a dark corner is well versed in herbal pharmacology and anesthesiology.
The thrilling climax features the wonders of pharmacological dark magic, the strategy of David versus Goliath, “honor among cannibals,” if not Europeans, the revelation of the primacy of the Nation and a diplomatic coup that allows the Nation to dodge assimilation while enjoying an affiliation with the British Empire. Daphne graciously accepts a compliment from a cannibal under-chief. He told her she is so bright that he’d love to eat her brain. Mau and Daphne face painful decisions that test their mutual love, growth, maturity and sense of duty.
Nation succeeds as a Young Adult novel while reaching out to the older audience. Young adults Mau and Daphne grow through confrontation with real-life problems. They maintain remarkable focus, honesty, generosity and most importantly, self-sacrifice for the good of the Nation. Members of every generation should stand as tall. The reader learns with them as Terry Pratchett weaves in references to history, literature, astronomy, geography, geology, anthropology and especially biology. The antics of a sea-captain’s iconoclastic parrot and such exotic species as the beer-drinking, upchucking pantaloon bird and the legendary tree octopus (not to be confused with the North American species (Octopus aborishoaxiensis) continue to amaze, chapter after chapter.