Article Five by Kristen Simmons takes place in a world not too difficult to imagine. In this YA dystopian novel, an internal war had taken place in the United States and the country has come under the control of the Federal Bureau of Reformation, a type of moral militia, under the leadership of President Scarboro and his totalitarian government. Teenage Ember Miller finds herself targeted as an Article Five violator simply because her mother gave birth to her out of wedlock. Not that she and her mom have had it easy over the last several years anyway. The economy is shot, jobs have been hard to find and keep, food is rationed and the military has had carte blanche to surprise search homes for anything that might be considered against the Moral Statues – it’s not a huge stretch to understand the setting of the story when we observe what’s been happening in the economy and government of the past several years.
Ember’s world comes crashing down when Chase, the boy next door she has loved since childhood, returns as a soldier to arrest Ember and her mother. The women are separated and Ember is sent to the Girls’ Reformatory and Rehabilitation Center, a brutal place run by the Sisters of Salvation, who are less than holy or charitable in their treatment of the girls interned there. Ember is desperate to escape and find her mother and the story is one of a female hero in a world where women have been marginalized and even brutalized and the citizenry as a whole has had their rights violated.
This book reminded me strongly of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I guess when I really think about it that was probably the first book I ever read of the dystopia genre, though it’s not YA fiction. I was so fascinated by the story that I read it nonstop finishing it in one day. The reason I remember it so vividly is that I was on a beach in Miami at the time, and I was absorbed in the world it presented, that I ended up with the most severe sunburn of my life. What I liked about that book, and this one, is the way the authors are able to take actual truths and events from current times, and extrapolate these out to their extremes, so that the world building is both very familiar and therefore all the more chilling.
As a woman I was particularly fascinated by the denigration of the female characters and the backlash against women’s liberation. In a world where women make up the majority of degree holders, but head less than 10% of companies, where there recently was a bitter fight over the healthcare plan’s inclusion of contraceptives and a congressman called one activist a ‘slut’ for testifying, these books touch upon the unease I feel whenever women’s issues are raised, or buried, even in supposedly modern and enlightened times. Sadly, The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and it doesn’t feel as if some of society’s opinions and treatment of women have improved much in the almost thirty years since the book came out. I am happy that Article Five has carried on with raising some of the questions and themes explored by its predecessor. I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that so many current YA dystopia fiction novels are filled with strong female protagonists, do you?