In Girls on Fire I analyze some of the similarities and differences, connections and inspirations, between and among young adult dystopian literature and dystopian Literature by women.* Several of these adult books feature teenage protagonists—usually just at the cusp of adulthood. In addition to the books I write about in Girls on Fire (like California by Eden Lepucki as well as In the Heart of the Valley of Love by Cynthia Kadohata), there are several interesting contemporary examples of adult dystopian stories that center not-quite-yet-adult protagonists like Memory of Water (2012; 2014 in the U.S.) by Finnish author, Emmi Itäranta and America Pacifica (2011) by Anna North.
Our vague cultural markers, like the age of eighteen, supposedly imbue a teenager with adult status though the reality of adulthood does not hinge on this marker. In the realm of dystopia, our protagonists have adult responsibilities and adult worries beginning in childhood, but they are often ignorant in the bigger picture of their society—the ways in which the past has shaped the present and the ways in which power and corruption have done the shaping. Becoming an adult—in both YA dystopia and adult Literature—means having the blinders removed and finally seeing reality for what it is, not what we have been brainwashed to believe.
This is the case in both Memory of Water and America Pacifica. In the former, the protagonist has been interning as Tea Master, an ancient profession reserved for men. Noria is almost through her training when her world shifts; her father dies, her mother moves away, and she is left to protect and discover secrets that change the course of her life as well as her community. In America Pacifica, Darcy lives in a world that revolves around her mother and their bare level of subsistence. When her mother disappears, she is left to uncover the secrets her mother has kept, secrets that not only reveal her mother’s hidden past, but also the potential for revolutionary change for the oppressed of Darcy's world.
Both girls, who are also women, put into motion the possibility of change in their oppressive societies. Both societies have reached the point where extreme corruption and greed have made life unsustainable; both Girls on Fire influence the tipping point in an attempt to restore balance. For Noria, the price is death, which comes about mostly through lack of communication and misunderstanding. But she leaves behind key information that shifts the roles of power and possibility by revealing the government’s generations of lies. For Darcy, the price is losing her mother and almost losing her life as she helps to topple the corrupt regime and then follows her principles and sets out on a lonely, dangerous journey to find people on the mainland.
In both cases, there is much more work left to be done. Though circumstances force these girls to grow up—to take responsibility not just for themselves, but for their community—their coming of age is similar to the coming of age for a society or culture. That shift toward hope for something better happens, but more development is needed. It takes time to mature into adulthood just as it takes time for a society to mature into a just, free, equal community. Girls on Fire survive their toxic, abusive, violent societies and spark progressive change. They provide inspiration and incentive for us to do the same.
*The main difference between young adult dystopian novels is the role of sex and romance. Typically, there is far more sex and far less romance. This is the case in America Pacifica where Darcy has very little experience outside of her life with her mother, but has still made out with a number of boys and agrees to have sex with a guard to get the information she needs. This is not, however, the case in Memory of Water where there is no sex and no romance besides the hint of love disguised as friendship.