I read this book with a group of cool folk in The Blerd Book Club. You don’t have to be black or a nerd. Also, don’t laugh at me for using Sherri L. Smith’s government name all throughout this post.
I posted a little bit ago that I was taking a hard dive into the sci-fi genre of novels. With the assistance of The Blerd Book Club, I was guided to the writing of Sherri L. Smith. I wanted to wait until the Black Girl Nerds podcast featuring the author Sherri L. Smith and The Blerd Book Club before I spoke my piece on the book.
This book is young adult fiction, but I would discourage anyone from walking away from it for that reason. It was a good read and easy to follow. There was a scientific basis for the foundational story line (AWESOME!!!!!). It was set in a city that most of us are familiar with-even if just from a distance.
There were three things that struck me about this book. I won’t go into terrible amounts of detail, because I really encourage people to read this book. NO *SPOILER ALERTS*.
First: the imagery.
During the podcast Sherri L. Smith said that she tends to “write visually” and in the book she describes a place that is convincingly important in her own life. I went to New Orleans for the first time about two years ago and many of the places that I visited are described in this book. The transformation that occurred to New Orleans in the book had me reeling just from the imagery. I stood in the place where the musician played in the beginning of the story, and it was eerie that this part happened during a storm that I actually followed on the news. I rode past the superdome during my visit and which allowed me to close my eyes and more richly see it’s crumbled structure as created by the author. Jackson Square, another setting in the beginning, was one of my favorite places. My eyes were peeled for the whole trip and, as I read Orleans, I was reliving the city as if in some alternate universe.
Second: Color didn’t matter
I was heavily impacted by the fact that the dividing lines in the story are not drawn along race or economic status. There is no socio-economic caste system. The caste system was based on susceptibility to “Delta Fever”, an infection inspired by Sherri L. Smith’s seeing her mother go through a post-Katrina illness. In the novel, depending on blood type, an individual may be more or less susceptible to infection, but everyone is a carrier. For protection from each other, people with the same blood type would band together to form tribes. Most people were non-distinct racially and blood types became the dividing lines. Genetic predisposition to disease and one’s ability to function in a tight community are what dictate survival.
(This is where I whip out some of my critical analysis chops that I acquired in Mrs. Sturdivant’s AP English class…over a decade ago.)
As a young adult novel with a young woman as the lead, Sherri L. Smith, avoided the expected development of a romance. Sherri L. Smith stayed true to world she had created – there was little to be gained from romance. I am so glad this was touched on in the podcast.
Teenaged Fen, the lead, was creatively developed in this story. Her character was drawn out through flashbacks, her own thoughts, and her responses to the people who she was caring for: newborn Enola and Orleans outsider Daniel. If there is a love story here, it seems to be between Fen and Enola, the baby who Fen promises to take care of when Fen’s leader and (sometimes) caretaker, Lydia, dies during childbirth. Fen starts out as a soldier charged with a task, and, as the story progresses, her urgency in caring for Enola becomes more motherly. Enola’s safety from the Fever and the perils of Orleans exposes Fen to the reader as a person who is not void of emotion. Fen is no longer someone who has nothing to lose or whose only priority is her own survival. This survival of “Baby Girl” pushed Fen beyond herself over and again.
Daniel, from the moment of his mention, would appear to some as the putative love interest for Fen, but he ended up being a springboard for Fen’s own self-discovery. I assumed Daniel was about 10 years older than Fen, but his vast naivete and vocal curiousity about Orleans makes him the far less mature of the pairing. Fen had to teach and rescue Daniel in a world that was dark and primordial. She had to acquire patience in an impatient place. This was more difficult to resolve toward Daniel than toward the helpless baby of the woman who took Fen in. Through Fen’s thoughts, Sherri L. Smith showed the reader Fen’s changes. At one point, she expressed an appreciation of Daniel, who, often seems to be dead weight. Fen even had to learn to be rescued and to relinquish the lead. In a place where she could trust no one, Fen had to trust Daniel. Enola’s life depended on it.
Far more than the possibility of romantic love, the possibility that these three people would form a tribe is what drove the story for me. “Tribe is life” was an ever-present mantra. Will they prevail?