This story opens on the day of the “reaping,” a term not immediately explained that warns of something ominous.
Part wilderness survival adventure, part fantasy, this engrossing novel is set in the future, after the United States has been demolished in some unnamed catastrophe. Now the Capitol commands loyalty and wealth while the country’s 12 districts are impoverished. We meet young Katniss, who lives in the poorest of the districts, and who hunts with a bow and arrow to provide food for her mother and little sister.
The reaping? Once a year, the Capitol demands that the districts each send two young people to the Hunger Games, where the contestants plot to kill each other. The last one standing wins. Out of thousands from her district, Katniss is chosen by lottery for this supreme sacrificial honor.
The set-up for the actual games moves along steadily but with great detail. It’s like the Olympics gone terribly wrong, as adults cheer on the chosen children, dress them in pageant clothing, feed them scrumptious foods, and train them how to use various weapons. The horror is that these children cannot escape. They are going to have to kill or be killed.
The games begin. Blood is shed in the first minutes of the competition. And all this is broadcast throughout the country on TVs both in homes and in public places. It’s heart-thumping entertainment. All citizens are required to watch this extreme reality TV show. Even the parents of the children whose lives are violently cut short.
Katniss has grown up with the games on TV every year. She knows how it works. She plays to the cameras, figuring out what will please viewers. Audience approval may mean sponsors will bet on her or send in gifts such as life-saving medicine. She calculates whether she should look sad, happy, energetic — all while children are dying around her. She forms alliances, knowing that either she or her “friends” will have to betray each other soon. Can she survive? More than that, can her humanity and decency survive? Would she give her life for a friend? Or would she do whatever she has to do to win?
The level of depravity of the adults in the Hunger Games brings to mind those who threw Christians to the lions in the arena. But we want to think of America today as more civilized. Reality TV brings us competitions such as Survivor and American Idol; announcers may say contestants are “fighting for their lives.” But that’s only figurative, not literal. Could a contest in which children kill children one day become a televised sport as popular as, say, college basketball?
Here’s something else to think on as the story unfolds. If you were chosen (yes, forced) to play in the games, would you be able to kill? Would you subvert character traits like love, kindness, and gentleness to win the games?
This is the first book of a trilogy, so there’s more to the story. In this world where adults force young people to fight to the death, character may not be valued, but can it still be found? I’ll be reading the next book, Catching Fire, to find out . . .