CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 6 . . . . October 7, 2011
Catherine Austen's All Good Children is a classic, dystopian novel. Here is a world facing catastrophic threats: terrorist bombings, flooding, drought, and infertility. But the real threat is a powerful chemical corporation that seems to be assuming the place of an elected government. Having designed New Middletown to be an exclusive refuge from the chaos outside its walls, Chemrose International is now turning its attention to the citizens of New Middletown, beginning with the children.
All Good Children begins by immediately demonstrating what a decidedly bad child our hero narrator is. Fifteen year old Max Connors is angry and cocky. In line at airport security, he does not wait for instructions but instead drops his pants and waits, and hopes, for a reaction from the bored security guard whom he tells, "I'm ready for my pat down now". The guard responds with a predictable misuse of power and so establishes a plot pattern that will repeat throughout the novel. This incident also introduces a main concern of this story: an obedient, orderly society versus the rights and freedoms of the individual.
The Connors family, Mom, Max and adorable little sister Ally, are returning from a funeral in Atlanta to their home in New Middletown, a walled city constructed and controlled by Chemrose International. But the Connors children have missed the first, crucial week of school, and along with it, a crucial and sinister development in social engineering. It seems that the pressure packed problems of public education in this futuristic society shares, albeit on a smaller scale, many of our public schools' current problems. Huge classes, unruly students and poor performance have convinced school officials to adopt a Chemrose International solution: NEST – the New Educational Support Treatment. Through a universal vaccination program, every student in New Middletown is to receive a dose of a new compliance inducing drug. Parents have been promised that "nesting makes the children receptive to the tools of learning." Teachers are thrilled, but the Connors family is horrified. By lucky chance, Mrs. Connors is a nurse and is able to situate herself to fake the vaccination of Max and his best friend, Dallas. But they will not be able to fake compliance for very long, especially the deeply anti authoritarian Max.
Much of the tension in this novel comes from Max's many conflicts with others. And Max has issues with everyone: teachers, classmates, even his beleaguered mother. But the question is, are his issues legitimate challenges to the growing nightmare of his world, or is Max just a cheeky adolescent with a chip on his shoulder, out to challenge everyone? It is sometimes hard to trust his narration of events. Is it really possible for so many adults to be so dim witted and, in some cases, so malicious? At times, Max comes across as more wise and insightful than almost everyone else. While it's far fetched to believe that the Connors family is just about the only family to recognize the sinister underbelly of the vaccination program, it's even harder to accept that only Max has the courage and skill to plan their escape. When Max's mother balks at the plan to flee to Canada, Max assures her that, "They take anyone with a trade. Their economy's weak and their population is even older than ours. They need nurses." But even though Max's resume as a hero may strain credibility – besides being brilliant in school and a talented athlete, his rebellious artwork ignites a resistance movement "against corporate control" - Austen creates enough of a backstory to make Max's extreme personality possible.
In other places, Austen quiets Max's voice and lets the story tell itself. Here, following a violent street fight between Max and a school bully, the foes turn and stare in astonishment at the middle school playground as it dawns on them that their fight has failed to draw any attention whatsoever:
This chilling observation is highly effective and is typical of the atmosphere that resonates throughout the novel.
Austen takes on a lot in this novel, and she largely succeeds. She raises interesting and important questions about social engineering and what being a responsible citizen really means. There is also plenty of action, suspense and humour, and lots of it takes place in a school setting that is eerily recognizable. And despite some concern about our hero being more superhero than anti hero, Max is an interesting and complicated character. Fans of the dystopian genre will be very satisfied with Austen's take on a future gone awry. More mature readers might even read All Good Children as an allegory for an education system overly focussed on behaviour control; a warning about the current practice of (over?) prescribing drugs for attention deficit disorders.
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.