NB: This is not so much a review as a critique. If you’d rather read a proper review, or just want some background information, go read something like this.
Young adult writer Rebecca Stead won the prestigious Newbery Medal last year for her fabulous book, When You Reach Me, a beautifully woven sci-fi mystery that’s largely an homage to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle In Time (which also won a Newbery Medal, back in 1962). Her first novel, aptly titled First Light, has now been released in Australia. The novel is loaded with political intrigue and progressive thinking. It does not disappoint.
Where Two Paths Cross
12-year-old Peter is on the trip of a lifetime in Greenland, accompanying his scientist parents on a 6-week climate change research field trip. While his parents busy themselves with important sciency things, Peter inadvertently crosses paths with Thea, a mysterious girl with a very cool snow dog. Turns out Thea comes from a small civilisation of people who live inside the glacier upon which they are standing (don’t ask me how they can survive without any vitamin D – just suspend your disbelief. After all, they can also telepathise with dogs, or see and hear things beyond the usual human capacity). Her ancestors fled to Greenland from England long ago, after being persecuted for their enhanced capabilities. In Greenland they founded their sanctuary, Gracehope, next to an underground lake in the glacier; their survival is aided by brilliant, sustainable technologies we normal people could only dream of. But she believes her people’s destiny does not lie forever underground, and so she defies the closed-mindedness of her community and ventures on a forbidden trip to the surface, where her chance meeting with Peter will unravel the mysteries of the past and change everything.
An Allegory for Our Times
The problems facing Gracehope are an allegory for global environmental pressures today. Gracehope’s very existence is in danger: climate change is melting the surrounding glacier, and consequent geophysical changes are shifting the underground refuge ever closer to the sea. This is a plot device which further raises the stakes in what is already a page-turning drama, but it’s also symbolic of how global warming is threatening our own lives as we now know them.
The symbolic function of Gracehope works on other levels too. As it’s a closed geographical space with finite resources, its inhabitants are able to witness the impacts they have on their surrounding environment more immediately than elsewhere. The result is a respect for their environment and the enforcement of sustainable lifestyles. This includes making do with rations from the colony’s limited food supply (you can read whatever Communist theory you want into this, too), using sustainable technologies, recycling, and making do with what they have. Again, the transposition into our real world is easy: Stead is highlighting the impact we have on our environment merely by existing, and reminding us about our planet’s finite resources and its limited capacity to offer necessities to an ever-increasing human population. Unfortunately for us in the real world, the impacts of our modern lifestyles are all too often easy to ignore, especially when measurable changes are happening far off in other parts of the world.
Stead also presents dogs (or “Chikchu”, as they are called in Gracehope) as highly intelligent creatures who are integral to the survival of both Thea and Peter. As discussed here, endowing animals with respect and importance reminds us that we humans are just one part of a complex and grand natural order, and not necessarily always in charge.
Animal lovers will appreciate the strong bonds between characters and their companions in First Light
Even Families, Politics Divides
The rebellious Thea is juxtaposed by her conservative, fearful grandmother, Rowen. Rowen is a draconian, matriarchal figure who will do anything to thwart the young girl’s ideals, including abusing political privilege through lying to her people, concealing information that might impact their points of view. In this sense, Rowen represents a backward-thinking, fearful type of Conservatism, characterised by negativity and a Machiavellian clinging to power through whatever means necessary (I can think of plenty of right-wing leaders throughout history who fit this bill). Though hailing from a family who possesses enhanced senses, Rowen seems to lack much sense at all, beyond protecting her own interests and prolonging the confrontation of her fears.
Thea, on the other hand, represents youthful, progressive thought – the kind that moves mountains through mass protest, and which has historically led to all sorts of ground-breaking movements in history, from universal suffrage to anti-war movements to gay rights. She embodies the very idea of positive resistance that seeks to better people’s lives. Her stubbornness, though at times perhaps a bit hasty, renders her character all the more believable, rounding out her youthfulness. Sometimes conviction is no bad thing – otherwise, society would be stuck in the dark ages. Or under a glacier. The metaphors, oh, the metaphors …
Understanding The Other
Finally, Stead is concerned with tolerance. While Thea’s people themselves fled persecution for their difference, it’s interesting that Rowen is also overcome by a fear of the “other”; in her case, the “other” being the outside world, and the people who inhabit it. Hers is a prejudicial fear that has been passed down through generations since Gracehope was founded, and she appears incapable of shaking this viewpoint and seeing things for what they really are, let alone embracing change.
Stead highlights the theme of difference when the citizens of Gracehope gather in the council chamber to watch their children act in “Launch”, which is a bit like a Christian nativity play, but re-enacts the story of how Gracehope was founded (including the bits about persecution and death. Yes, they have their own symbolic martyrs). During the play, Peter, who has hitherto been hiding to prevent people from knowing about Thea’s trip above ground, finally reveals himself to the crowd. As the only fair-haired person these people have ever laid eyes upon, he certainly stands out. Although not made explicit, the scene subtly invokes elements of racism as Rowen attempts to paint him as an impostor, a liar and a danger to her people’s health and very existence.
When Thea first met Peter, she too had been initially fearful. But in the purity of her youth, untainted by prejudice, this fear was quickly superseded by curiosity and engagement in dialogue. Says her great aunt Dexna (who could not be more different to her sister Rowen): “[Thea] has known the courage to reach out where she was taught to shrink back in fear”. For Peter, that courage was always a given; this bravely curious young boy exhibits next to no fear at all. Through sharing, he and Thea are able to bridge their differences, learn from each other, and better understand their predicaments.
An underground lake, Gracehope’s life-blood. Image from molon.de.
A Treasure for Young Readers
Ultimately, what I love about First Light is not solely that it smuggles these interesting politics between its covers, but that it does so within a wonderfully crafted story in a refreshingly original setting. The fact that it is such a compelling and satisfying mystery means it delivers its political messages all the more successfully. Its leanings are never spelt out; rather, they form essential parts of the story, are integral to the plot itself. And for all its allegorical parallels, the story works because we see, in the social and familial structures of Gracehope, elements of humanity that are familiar and true to real life.
While it seems the present generation is getting plenty enough education about global environmental issues, First Light is a very welcome addition to the body of children’s educational fodder, not least because it is able to personalise issues through well-rounded characters with whom readers can empathise. This is a great read for ages from about 9 upwards (or thereabouts – everyone’s kid is gifted, aren’t they? Mine will be reading this kind of book at five), and different reading levels will in turn glean varied levels of meaning from this richly layered story.