Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How I Live Now, Printz Award, 2005

The story of How I Live Now is fast-paced, unusual, and engrossing. It’s a perfect blend of love story and survival story. Expert handling of voice, character, and setting make Daisy’s journey completely believable amidst incredible circumstances.

The primary part of the novel is written in continuous prose style, without normal punctuation, a style which is very difficult for some readers, but can create a spell-binding effect of actually being inside Daisy’s head. Daisy later explains her unconventional writing as grief stricken ramblings because she “refused to relinquish a single detail of the past.” Her voice is sometimes devastatingly sad and sometimes quite humorous. Daisy’s teenage mind flawlessly blends the two as a way of allowing both herself and the reader to cope. One of my favorite examples of this is in chapter 28. “We couldn’t go on. We went on. Staying alive was what we did to pass the time. . . . I was thinking of approaching my old school the next time we were in New York and telling them to replace the unit on Media Communications with one on How to Survive Half Dead in the Wilderness without Much in the Way of Hope.”

The setting of a vague current war is frankly terrifying to me. Some readers won’t abide the lack of specific details about this war, but the lack of detail is authentic and understandable. Rosoff merely asks us to imagine what life would be like if an organized terrorist group were to attack both Britain and the U.S. and cut off all normal communication like phone and internet. People would be confused, to say the least. Many would not even know who the real enemy was. Transport systems for medicine, food, and gasoline would fail. Hospitals would be dedicated only to war injuries. People would organize militia groups to fight back. Drafting and quartering acts would be expected. When the enemy is defeated, people would debate about what exactly started the war in the first place, throwing out ideas like “oil, money, land, sanctions, democracy.” The vagueness of this war is not at all a weakness of the story; it provides a strong emotion-laden setting.

Although Daisy is really the only developing character in the story, the others are by no means boring. Piper is angelic, innocent, trusting, and she can talk to animals. Her weakness serves as the catalyst for Piper’s growth. Edmund is a 14-year-old smoker with scraggly hair and puppy-dog eyes. He’s intelligent and sensitive. He has some kind of telepathic ability that allows him to hear people’s thoughts. He serves as motivation for Daisy’s journey. Daisy gradually grows from a selfish, insecure, anorexic teen bent on punishing herself and her family into a brave young woman who fights to protect the safety and innocence of Piper, to survive the threats of the wilderness and war, and to love Edmund despite his damage.

In spite of numerous negative reader reviews concerning the “cousin issue,” I didn’t personally find it to be a problem. A relationship with a first cousin is not morally wrong, or incestuous; in this book, it’s not even gross (the cousins have never met each other before). It is a societal taboo, and Daisy recognizes that fact, pointing out that they can only get away with this behavior because adults aren’t around.

The only part of this book I didn’t like was the abrupt end to the first section. I would have appreciated knowing what Daisy thought as officers showed up at her door and carted her off to a plane bound for America. I wanted to know how she felt about being put in a hospital when she went back. I understand leaving a gap for the time she was actually in the hospital, but details leading to that point could have emphasized Daisy’s emotional state when she began writing her story.

Themes of How I Live Now include love, responsibility, control, hunger, lust, underage sex, anorexia, telepathy, war, and survival. The primary theme is survival for the sake of love. Survival in itself is never Daisy’s goal. When she lives in America and feels unloved, her self-punishment and demand for control work against her own survival. After she grows to love Edmund and Piper, and they love her, she uses base survival as a means to keep that love. She reminds us at the end of the book when discussing her love for Edmund that “Fighting back is what I’ve discovered I do best. . . . And that’s how I live now.”

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