I joked on Facebook and Twitter the other day that I was in the middle of two book reviews, Kenneth Oppel’s Half Brother and Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay, and if I didn’t go home to bed, I probably would end up putting a chimp in Panem. (Book geek joke)
This morning, as I returned to these reviews, it came to me that although very different kinds of books, they are thematically about the same thing. Whether we are fourteen or thirty- four, there are questions that we will continue to ask ourselves: What kind of person am I going to be? How will I/we define my/our humanity and the choices I/we will to make?
In Half Brother, thirteen-year-old Ben must adjust to his parent’s behavioural science experiment which involves the adoption of an eight-day-old chimpanzee they call Zan. Zan is to be raised exactly like a human, dressed in clothes with a room of his own. Project Zan is designed to determine whether chimpanzees can learn language the way humans can. When his father looses his funding, Project Zan is shut down and Ben must decide what he will do to save the chimp he now sees as his baby brother.
Mockingjay is the third novel in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy. What was North America, is now Panem divided into thirteen Districts, with the Capitol as its head. To maintain the peace and keep provisions coming, each year, each District must send two teens between the ages 12 to 18 as tributes to compete to the death in a televised Hunger Games. In the first novel, The Hunger Games, when her sister is picked, sixteen-year-old Katniss offers to go in her stead, competes and wins the games. In the second book, Catching Fire, her actions have inspired rebellion across the districts. In Mockingjay, the rebels and the Capitol are at war and Katniss must become the Mockingjay, the pawn and a symbol of hope for those fighting and affected by war and must also come to terms with the role she has played in the lives that are lost.
Here, Ben talks about watching a documentary about animal testing: “I guess I’d always assumed humans were more important than animals. We killed and ate animals all the time – unless you were vegetarian, which I wasn’t – so it seemed hypocritical to start worrying about animals’ feelings or how we treated them. I found it hard to worry too much about a rat or a mouse…I saw rows and rows of cages filled with all sorts of animals…a chimpanzee. He was little, maybe three months old, and much skinnier than Zan was at that age. It looked like some of his hair had fallen out. He was rocking ack and forth really fast, his huge eyes blank. I felt my stomach start churning, and was glad when the film ended.“(Half Brother, 166)
Here is Katniss pondering the bombing of The Nut: “I have to close my eyes a minute, as the image rips through me. It has the desired effect. I want everyone in that mountain dead. Am about to say so. But then…I’m also a girl from District 12. Not President Snow. I can’t help it. I can’t condemn someone to the death he’s suggesting.” (Mockingjay, 204-205)
The complexities of how these two characters come to their decisions are similar. It is an evolution. On one hand they see why things are the way they are, but on the other, something triggers them at the core of their being forcing them out of their comfort level.
Another question: Would Katniss have to confront the same issues as Ben? Although she does what she can for Buttercup, her relationship to animals is that they are food. What would happen to a chimp in Panem. When fighting starvation is the motivator, animals, except perhaps for the cat Buttercup and the mockingjays, are hunted and used for food. I think that the poor chimp would have been stew.
Except towards the end of Mockingjay, when everything has essentially collapsed around her, Katniss doesn’t really consider an animal’s capacity for human emotions. She has enough trouble dealing with her own emotions and navigating through the politics and staying alive. The humans are the animals in the ring after all.
Where Katniss lives in a possible future, Ben lives in a probable past. As they were based on real experiments conducted on chimps, there is little doubt of the possibilities or even the accuracies of some of the themes that he was discussing. The bartering of animals for profit under the guise of scientific experiments, the cruel treatment of animals in many facilities around the globe, disregarding possible connections animal have made in their natural habitats, and what to do with the fall out when things are disrupted. (It is like going into a district, liberating it, and then leaving it to fend for itself. Has echoes of current events doesn’t it? )
Both Ben and Katniss are faced with difficult life changing decisions. For Ben, it is about what or who he is willing to sacrifice for the life of a chimp that he’d grown to love like family. For Katniss, it is about what she is willing to do to survive. What or who is she willing to sacrifice for her family. For Ben it is half brother. For Katniss, it is her sister. In the end, they are motivated by the thing that drives us all to do what needs to be done. Love.