Cruise into summer with The Living

The Divergent trilogy has drawn to a close, finishing with a volume that has drawn decidedly mixed reviews from your Hogpro faculty and the most of the rest of the world as well. There is still much more to be said about that series—personally, I find myself changing my mind about Allegiant about as often as I change my socks. We need to hear more about the first movie, and the others to come–are they really going to split Allegiant into two films?.  It’s Insurgent that needs more screen time! –We also have the Mockingjay movies to look ahead to, as well as more from Ms. Rowling as the Fantastic Beasts movie launches and the Cormoran Strike series continues. Having just re-read James Thomas’s Rowling Revisted, I am particularly looking forward to seeing the adventures of Newt Scamander unfold. But that’s still a long way off.

Last week, I went into the first and hopefully annual LSU Young Adult Literature Conference with a central question in mind… what’s next? What new book series do we start to discuss on this site? The female-centric dystopia trend shows no sign of abating; indeed, there was enough buzzing about Marie Lu’s Legend and Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing series that both are on my library hold list. But I can also see the value in a change of pace.

So, here’s my suggestion….

Several books by our guest authors were recommended to the LSU instructors-in-residence for reading prior to the conference. Among them was Matt de la Pena’s latest novel, The Living, published in November 2013 and described by the conference leadership as a “future classic.” I was unfamiliar with de la Pena’s previous work, although I had read of the controversy regarding his books being pulled from the Arizona public school curriculum. But it made little difference, since according to virtually everyone I talked to who knew Mr. de la Pena’s work, The Living was a radically different type of story from his previous four novels.

Once I  read Mexican Whiteboy on the plane on my return trip (the autographed copy I got for my son), I can see what they meant. Up to now, Mr. de la Pena had written realistic coming-of-age stories about working-class Latino and mixed-race kids. Mexican Whiteboy was hauntingly poetic and carried a quiet intensity as Danny strove to make his way in a difficult world, marginalized by his mixed heritage within a culture that is often itself marginalized. Danny’s primary concerns are ones he shares with thousands of other kids: why did is father leave him and how can he stop himself from choking on the ball field? Meaningful questions in a touching novel, but far from the magic and fantasy we typically focus on at www.hogwartsprofessor.com.

At first glance, The Living seems to follow the same vein. The hero is Shy, a half-white, half-Mexican teen with a background much like Danny’s, and indeed, from a neighborhood much like Mr. de la Pena’s own. Shy has been transplanted from his San Diego border community to a summer job as a cruise ship towel boy, where he is encountering the first really stinking rich people he has ever known. But the story quickly takes a hairpin turn into action-adventure, then another, then another, until I eventually lost count. It felt like a roller coaster to me; I can only imagine what Mr. de la Pena’s regular readers must have thought.

The point is, what starts out reading like the script from a Love Boat episode quickly balloons into a series of catastrophes that would have made the Egyptians of Exodus feel fortunate. Just when you are thinking nothing else can possibly rock Shy’s world, it does. And, by the end, the Carnival Cruise world that we’d all love to vacation in has transformed into a bona fide post-apocalypse, and in only eight days. You are left without much else to say but… wow.

Once I had picked myself up off the floor and shook the Underdog theme song out of my head like so much seawater, I staggered to my computer and typed a “Hey, you have to read this…” email to Headmaster Granger. Within ten days he had gotten and read the book and agreed it would be a great book to start discussing. So, here is the introduction, as spoiler-free as is reasonably achievable.

Top Eight Reasons We Should Discuss The Living on HogwartsProfessor.

1. The Hero. Who wouldn’t love Shy Espinoza? He may come from the same neighborhood as Mr. de la Pena’s other protagonists, but he is also cut from the same cloth as Harry, Katniss and Tris. His language may be coarser, but his heart is as pure and he has the same instinctive sense of altruism (or, what Hermione called the saving-people thing). Besides, after Hunger Games and Divergent I am ready for a male protagonist again, and a hero of color to boot.

2. The Love Interest. Carmen is as captivating as her operatic namesake. We can see why Shy pines for her, but happily his love for her is part of what pushes Shy to survive disaster and even find redemption in it. Yes, there is half-hearted effort at a love triangle, with potential rival for Shy’s affections, but I don’t see “Team Addison” t-shirts selling well on CafePress.

3. The Savior. I won’t spoil it for you, but it managed to surprise me, and let’s just say to expect someone whose butt-saving talents certainly rival Indiana Jones’, if not Dumbledore’s. It’s little wonder people exclaim, “Jesus, who are you?”

4. The Author. I had the privilege of meeting Mr. de la Pena at LSU and found him to be a wonderfully friendly person with a fascinating story of his journey to the world of fiction. He responded positively to the idea of having the book discussed here, so hopefully he will eventually find time to answer some questions. John is already working on his list.

5. The Psychology. From the moment Mr. de la Pena began considering college, which was not a common ambition in his neighborhood, he knew he wanted to be a psychology major and he was. My students and I have had plenty of fun digging through psychological themes in Divergent; I’m sure we will find them in The Living. Expect to hear more about the role of psychology in storytelling.

6. The Movie Potential. Books-to-movies translations are always hot topics at HogPro, and Hollywood would be crazy not to buy this. Expect a large budget and lots of water. Maybe Erika Bierman will be old enough to play Addie; she’ll have the rich kid thing down after playing Snow’s granddaughter.

7. The Simplicity. The Living is not the elaborately constructed fantasy world with the complicated cast of characters that Rowling, Collins and Roth gave us. In fact, for roughly a quarter of the book, Shy only has a couple of other characters (plus the occasional shark) with whom to interact, and, like the Deathly Hallows Camping Trip, it seemed much longer– I estimated 1/3 to ½ until I went back and counted the pages. There are no “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” constructs that will inspire multiple essays on the intricacy of the word choices. But, there don’t need to be. Shy lives in our world and, at dizzying speed,  we watch the playing field leveled –to the point of obliteration–along with him. Which brings us to…

8. The Sequel. Only one is planned, for release in November 2014, so we have time. My e-book says its title is The Forgotten, but the current Random House website says it’s called The Hunted. The title change alone is interesting, since, in my mind, being hunted and being forgotten are two rather different things. From the few hints our heroes have about what is awaiting them on shore, I had guessed the sequel will be pretty much pure post-apocalyptic dystopia, and the author confirmed that for me at the conference. While Panem and The Factions developed into their totalitarian states after forgetting, or re-writing several hundred years of history, Shy is facing horrors that we quite literally could be facing next week. In Shy’s world, all it takes is eight days, a poorly timed evil scheme and a coincidental natural disaster, and … uh-oh.

It’s a world that is all the scarier for its familiarity. And, Shy ought to inspire us all the more as he accepts the challenges.

So, go get the book and start reading, people, before the ship sails. Spoiler-packed posts are on deck.

Comments

  1. 7kidsintx says:

    I got this book from the library on the recommendation of this blogpost. I read it all today and I LOVED the book. I’d love to see some posts on it and be part of the discussion.

    Read it, everyone!!!

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