My sister and I are nothing alike, so I related to the relationship between Skye and Phee in City of Savages by Lee Kelly. I mean the nature vs. nurture debate doesn’t really explain how two closely related people could be so different. I mean think about the nature argument, while siblings don’t share the exact same genetic material unless they are twins, they share more genetic material than two unrelated strangers would. When it comes to nurture, unless the siblings were separated and grew up in different households, they live in close quarters, are raised by the same parental figure, share the same social and economic status, etc. So between shared genetics and living in the same environment, how can two siblings be so fundamentally different?
City of Savages is partly about how two very different personalities navigate the world and the relationship they have with each other and other important figures in their lives. It’s also about the way people make decisions in a disaster that affect not only themselves but the people they love most.
Skye and Phee are the daughters of a woman who survived a foreign attack on U.S. soil that decimates the population. How this woman survives being trapped in a subway car, then underground hiding from soldiers and facing starvation, wondering if her husband is dead, while taking care of her toddler and pregnant with a second child, is nothing short of a miracle. It’s understandable that she doesn’t share the horrors with her daughters, though of course they wish they knew and understood her better.
Phee admires her mother’s tough spirit, though she doesn’t understand why her mother hates the strong woman, Rolladin, who acts as wardens to the prisoners of war who live in Central Park. Nor why their family are the only ones who only spend winters in the Park. Phee herself is a great hunter and a girl of words not action and although she is the younger sister she is much more of a leader than her gentle older sister Skye. Skye would love to share the world of before with her mother, but her mother never talks of the past which the girls cannot remember being only babies at the time the war broke out. Sarah, the mom, was living a New Yorker lifestyle of culture, travel, etc. Skye loves to read, dreams of school which no longer exists, and wants to get out of Manhattan and experience the world.
The world that the sisters know is that New York City has been turned into a POW camp by some foreign entity who attacked the U.S. when they were babies. The few survivors in NYC mainly live in The Park, which is really Central Park where a tough fellow New York, Rolladin acts as a warden and intermediary between the survivors and the enemy. The survivors hole up in a former hotel and work as fieldhands raising crops in Central Park. They have also bred some of the former zoo animals to have a steady supply of meat. Phee and Skye’s family is a little different as every spring and summer they along with their mom head off into the city to live on their own in a former luxury skyscraper apartment building, well it’s not so luxury now without air, heat, running water, electricity etc. but they get by with raising crops on the roof and hunting, most of the stores and apartments were raided for canned goods years ago.
When a small group of men who speak with strange accents show up in the Park at the start of fall, the consequences will change the course of everyone’s lives, lies will be exposed, and the sisters may be torn apart.