[sexual assault tw]
Another book that I originally bought way back in January for my birthday, I’m not going to lie and say that I was intentionally putting it off given my bad experiences with some recent young adult reads. I’m not running out of things to read by any means, but I realized there was only so long I could put off reading one book.
Ruby lives in a world where most of America’s children are gone, killed off by a mysterious disease, but when she wakes up on her tenth birthday, instead of the cold embrace of death, she discovers that something has changed. Something about her is frightening enough that her parents lock her in the garage and she is sent to Thurmond, a brutal “rehabilitation camp” for children like her, the ones who survived with mysterious powers that they cannot control. When the truth of Ruby’s abilities come out, however, she escapes Thurmond and joins up with some other kids heading to East River, rumored to be a sanctuary kids like her. When they finally arrive, however, they discover all is not as it seems, but there will those who will stop at nothing to use Ruby for their own ends, and her struggle to attain a life that is her own again will not be an easy one.
I confess that at times I find it difficult to not find characters who have gone through trauma annoying, not because trauma is easily dealt with (because it isn’t) but I often don’t realize a character that I would describe as “whiny” is actually acting that way due to their trauma. Sometimes I find it difficult to distinguish between “unlikable character because of a certain trait” and “traumatized character who is acting that way because they’ve been through hell”. In retrospect, I’ve realized I’ve unfairly judged certain characters who are actually acting that way because of abuse, and while I try to do better when judging a character, sometimes it’s difficult to not have that kneejerk reaction. Bracken’s characters have all been through hell to some degree, and they all deal with it in different ways: Liam, the leader of the group that Ruby encounters, is driven by guilt and on a mission, while Suzume is so traumatized by her experiences that she never speaks. My favourite character is Chubs, the smart guy who can’t see very well without his glasses and always has a sarcastic barb ready. Ruby, our protagonist, is stubborn, finds it hard to keep people close (for good reason), and very, very conflicted about using her powers. I think the only character who didn’t leave a strong impression on me was Liam, he just seems kind of bland when compared to Chubs, so of course, guess which one is Ruby’s obvious love interest?
This is kind of a weird comparison, but the book reminded me of the calmer moments in The Walking Dead game, where the characters are just sitting on a train and don’t have to worry about zombies for a few moments. In fact, the back cover text (and my summary) are a bit misleading as a sizable chunk of the book takes place on the road to East River. However, instead of zombies, the kids are threatened by bounty hunters: “skip tracers” who return fugitive children to the camps they escaped, representatives of other organizations who want to use the children for their own ends, and other children, some of whom have banded together to form tribes that don’t take kindly to outsiders. Normally I would be frustrated by the lack of action, but I thought the book was paced well, with just enough tension to keep things interesting, and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the characters finally had a chance to rest.
Even my very favourite books don’t escape criticism, and this book is no exception. It’s unfortunate that Bracken (out of ignorance, apparently) chose to make Suzume mute, as it reinforces the stereotype of the submissive Asian (in this case Japanese) woman. I do appreciate that in this instance, the author apologized and expressed regret regarding Suzume’s mutism, but as it is in the book and can still negatively affect those who read it, it bears mentioning. I also found the premise stretched the limits of my suspension of disbelief. For one thing, if most of America’s children have died off, wouldn’t adults have a vested interest in protecting them, not sending them to camps where they’re being mistreated? The whole thing with sending them to camps just seems like a massive instance of shooting oneself in the foot, if you ask me. Ruby also has this really annoying habit of encountering creepy boys who later turn out to be evil. There’s nothing wrong with creepy boys turning out to be evil, but it becomes this predictable shorthand for This Character is Obviously Evil and it’s just not very interesting.
In terms of diversity, in the main cast, Suzume is Japanese and Chubs is black. There are other minor characters of colour, like Hina, but they don’t play a huge role in the story. There are no overtly queer characters, although Ruby has really close relationships with other girls (which is, by the way, a refreshing change from protagonists who go out of their way to snipe at other girls).
In terms of trigger warnings, the book is definitely harmful to minors. There’s a scene at the beginning of the book where Ruby and a group of other children are deprived of sleep and denied food, as well as scenes involving kids getting shot. A character calls Suzume the r slur due to her mutism. The children are essentially being sent to concentration camps, obviously an uncomfortable topic for many. One notable scene near the end involves Ruby being restrained and sexually assaulted by a character she trusts. While the assault is treated with the seriousness it deserves, the situation itself is ambiguous, leaving the reader to wonder if Ruby was raped or not. This is one scene that could have been clarified or even left out entirely (as there were plenty of other ways this character could express his dominance without the sexual connotations).
Despite it’s obviously uncomfortable subject matter and the fact that some plot points didn’t make that much sense to me, I enjoyed The Darkest Minds and am interested enough to finish the trilogy. It might be some time before I get to the other books, however, I still have a ton of other books to read.