Thursday, August 18, 2011

America Pacifica, by Anna North

America Pacifica, by Anna North.  Little, Brown and Company, 2011.  297 pp.  978-0-316-10512-5.

... in which Darcy, a resident on an island of refugees, searches for her missing mother and fights a dictatorial government.

America Pacifica takes place at some point in the not-so-distant future (my guess would be about 40 years from now).  In the future, North America succumbs to a new ice age, leaving most of the continent completely uninhabitable.  An island colony was established in the Pacific Ocean.  This new settlement was dubbed America Pacifica, and holds about 50,000 residents.  The island is governed by a mysterious dictator whose council keeps a very tight hold on everything.  Darcy, an 18 year old girl, lives on America Pacifica with her mother, Sarah.  Sarah came to the island as a young woman, several years before Darcy's birth, and was one of the earliest residents to settle there.  Darcy and Sarah are extremely close, and have no other relatives or friends.  They live in a dilapidated apartment with leaky ceilings and a communal bathroom, and with both of their wages they barely have enough money to pay rent and to buy cans of cheese food.  One day Sarah receives a strange visitor at their apartment, and the next day, she's gone.  Darcy sets off on a journey to find her missing mother, and along the way she starts to learn truths about the island's history, its government and various secrets being kept by both the government and Darcy's own mother.

This was a fantastic book.  At slightly less than 300 pages, it's a pretty short read (I read it in a single evening!).  North's writing style is very engaging and beautiful.  She describes the island with such detail that it's almost easy to smell the rotting sewage and feel the oppressive crush of sweaty, tired slum-dwellers around you.  Darcy, initially a somewhat unlikable character, feels three-dimensional.  Her thoughts and feelings seem real, and she's a complex and believable character who shows a lot of growth and resilience over the course of the book.  None of the other major characters are exactly simple, either.  Even at the end, it's not particularly clear whether Darcy's allies are exactly good, and the "bad guys" turn out to be surprising as well.  I would say that my least favorite character is probably Darcy's mom, Sarah, because she seems sort of childish and vapid.  Strangely, other characters talk about how great Sarah is, but the truth is she never told Darcy anything about her mysterious past (a dangerous mistake, it turns out!) and she constantly approached life with Darcy as a game.

In terms of plot complexity, it's pretty straightforward since the cast of characters is manageable and we only follow one point of view (Darcy's).  Thematically, however, it's pretty complex.  The culture on the island is one of gaping social disparities, based on how early one arrived on the island.  For the most part, you're stuck with whatever level of society you're born into.  There are the first-boaters, who live in real houses with electricity and get to eat real food and go to real schools.  There are the second-boaters, who live in decent apartments.  And then, there are the slums, with varying levels of awfulness.  Since they have access to running water and (sometimes) electricity, Darcy and her mother could be considered lucky, even though their building is pretty much falling down around their ears.  So, some of the major themes of the book are social disparity, social mobility, and entitlement.  There's also discussion of what happens when citizens become apathetic and selfish.  Darcy admits, several times, to not caring about the news and not caring about how awful the government is, as long as she gets to eat.  Several other characters express similar sentiments, and many say that there's no point in voting or following events because things won't ever change.  Finally, there's also a message about what happens when you ignore history and the lessons of your elders.

My biggest complaint is that for a community of about 50,000 residents, the island seems awfully small.  Darcy works at a retirement home, and it just so happens that one of the residents just happened to know Sarah before anyone ever came to the island, back when they both still lived in a co-op outside of Seattle.  That seems a little bit too convenient.  And another resident just happened to know another character, also from the mainland, who turns out to be pretty important in the end.  Again, a little too convenient, but I guess in a community of 50,000, you're bound to run into someone who knows someone of importance.

My second complaint is that the ending is somewhat ambiguous.  North points you in the direction of the conclusion, and gives you hints about what probably happened, but no firm confirmation.  I don't think she's leaving room for a sequel... I think that's just how she preferred to end the book.  I happen to prefer firm, solid endings, but some readers like leaving things open, so I think that this complaint is really just based on personal preference.

Based on this book's description, I thought I'd find it in either the YA section or the sci-fi/fantasy section.  I was wrong... if you go looking for it at your local bookstore, it's classified under general literature.  I have tagged it as a post-apocalypse type novel, if only because the setting of the book is after the entire United States is covered in ice, but since the characters are more preoccupied with their present day status, and less concerned about the ice age anymore, the label doesn't entirely fit.  It is, however, slightly dystopian (arguably), if that's the kind of literature you enjoy.

5/5 stars

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