Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy
Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy (Scholastic/Arthur & Levine, 2014) is the first in a planned trilogy which sees me inadvertently straying into young adult territory again. Sadly, when I pick out books to read by title, I have no clear idea what to expect from a previously unread author. It’s part of the fun of being a reviewer in constantly trying something new in each new batch of books. Unfortunately, I find myself back in the black-and-white world of the YA market. It actually doesn’t start badly, briefly recreating some of the vibe from the original Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Yes, we’re in High School territory where the seventeen-year-old hero is something of a sporting jock whose coach also teaches the Civics (i.e. History and Moral Philosophy) class on what it means to be an American citizen. Unfortunately, instead of then going on to military training and into battle with the Bugs, we then grind into the preliminary moves for a Civil War scenario. Today Idaho, tomorrow the whole of America.
OK so here we go with a near-future political thriller. It’s not really SFnal albeit there are slightly more advanced AI interfaces for mobile technology and communication systems. For most practical purposes, we’re to confront this brave new world as equivalent to our own in terms of culture and the practicalities of day-to-day living. Our young hero is Daniel Christopher Wright. Because his father had been on active service, he joins the Idaho National Guard as soon as he’s old enough. Thus, when the book starts, he already knows how to shoot, but his knowledge of the US Constitution is almost zero. The trigger for events is a federal law requiring all US citizens to carry an ID-card. It’s a one-stop form of identification, whether talking about personal issues like access to medical records if the card carrier is injured and needs emergency treatment, or access to all state and federal programs. Ignoring the utility of such cards, this plan is deeply controversial because all the cards carry a GPS transmitter enabling those with authorisation to track where everyone goes. Many citizens and some US states see the card as an invasion of individual privacy, and they oppose the implementation of the law. President Rodriguez, however, is not in the mood to hear these protests.
This brings us back to Idaho and Governor Montaine who enjoys strong support both from the two houses of the state legislature, and among the voters. As an opponent of Big Government, the state exercises what it claims to be a sovereign power of nullification. Hence, the state will happily continue to comply with all the other federal laws, but ignore the ID law as unconstitutional. The federal government interprets this as an act of rebellion. There are legal routes for disputing whether any given law is constitutional. By denying the courts the chance to order a stay in the operation of the law pending a hearing on the merits, the Governor’s choice of unilateral action produces confrontation and megaphone diplomacy. Had this been a book written for adults, we could have had a sharp political thriller. There’s obviously dissent within Idaho as to the merits of this action. More importantly, the negotiations with other states and the federal government quickly escalates to brinkmanship. This could have been lovingly described with border incidents and local rioting adding pressure to the decision-making process.
Unfortunately, this is written for fourteen-year-olds and therefore gives us a young protagonist as the point of view. We’re treated to lots of infodumping on the Constitution and how it can be interpreted. That’s when we’re not playing high school football or going through the usual teen angst of first love and what that really means. The hook for the novel is that every last member of the Idaho National Guard has been called up for duty in Boise. There’s a major civil disturbance in the streets and the police can’t cope. The Governor would have preferred seasoned “troops”, but most of the experienced soldiers are overseas. This means our new recruit is sent out into a riot situation with a loaded gun. When someone throws a rock, it cracks both his head and the glass of the gas mask he’s wearing. In the confusion, his gun accidentally discharges. At the sound of the shot, bullets fly from both the members of his platoon and the rioters. People are wounded and killed. It’s one of these avoidable catastrophes. The Governor was wrong to allow raw recruits on to the front line. The officers were at fault in ordering troops into direct confrontation with the rioters carrying loaded guns. With plenty of blame to spread around, the Governor decides to defend the National Guard. None will be identified nor go through trial on homicide charges. So begins the cat-and-mouse game until Wright is outed as the one to fire the first shot. Then we deal with the local fallout as the tension between the President and the Governor intensifies.
The situation is interesting and the way in which the local people respond is credible. No matter what I might think of the romance between Wright and his girl, it remains within the YA limits and parents will not find anything to object to. But this is the end of the good things I have to say about the book. Frankly, I think it seriously misjudges the market, which is a profoundly ironic comment for me to make given my track record of actively disliking most YA fiction. But bear with me for a moment.
This is YA military fiction and aimed mainly at young boys who are not best known for their patience. Although there are set-pieces where our hero and his group of young supporters burst into action, there are also significant gaps between them. During this quiet time, we get discussions of the political picture which most of the shoot ‘em up brigade are likely to find boring. The result is a novel of very uneven pacing. Yes there are themes relevant to the young from asking what duty a son owes his ailing mother, how does any soldier balance commitment to the army against potentially higher moral imperatives, what role is there for honour in these difficult situations, what price should we be prepared to pay to defend our privacy, what does friendship really mean in terms of mutual help and support, and so on? There’s also a lot of discussion about the practicality of the more libertarian ideals of self-sufficiency, the right to bear arms, the relationship between the individual, the state and the federal government, and so on. So from a strictly educational point of view, the book is somewhat ambitiously advancing the agenda for discussion of civics and politics. Unfortunately it does so at some length and to the detriment of the action that might induce younger readers to keep turning the pages. I think the book would have been more successful if it had been less overtly didactic. As an adult, the discussion of these issues is painfully superficial and, given the blandness of the action, I found it tedious in the extreme to read this to the end. So Divided We Fall is a book that will appeal to thoughtful fourteen-year-olds and not to adult readers. As a final thought, the jacket artwork is seriously misleading. There are no scenes of helicopters flitting around the White House. That may come in later books. This is much less exciting.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.