In The Country of Ice Cream Star author Sandra Newman has broken some rules. First, in her post-apocalyptic tale most of the American survivors are black or Hispanic. Second, Ms. Newman doesn’t just build a world, but she builds a new language. Third, the book is nearly 600 pages.
It’s interesting that Sandra Newman, who is Caucasian, decided to create a situation where the survivors were minorities. Was she trying to make a political statement? Did she use this as a device to turn our ideas about the world upside down, the same way an apocalyptic event would flip everything we thought to be true about our world? Ideas such as we can fight any threat either technologically or militarily? That disaster will bring out the best in people? That the young and vulnerable would perish in greater numbers than adults with skills and experience?
Probably one of the reasons Ms. Newman made this choice is that it allowed her to write the book in a new language of her invention. Maybe ‘new’ is not completely accurate as I was able to read the book without ever being exposed to this language before, but it wasn’t the English that I know. Instead, this is a form of English that has evolved, and more specifically it evolved as a language of youth and from current African American vernacular. The fact that the heroine of the book is named Ice Cream Star already sets you on the path of buying into this invented language. You see in Ice Cream Star’s country, the former USA, the adults were killed off by WAKS a disease that seems something similar to the Black Plague or modern day Ebola. The disease reminded me of the Black Plague because one of the symptoms that appear when kids reach their eighteenth birthday is sores referred to as ‘posies’. The song lyrics ‘ring around the rosey, pocket full of posey’ that children sing on playgrounds now actually is about the Black Death, the ‘rosey’ being the sores and the ‘posey’ being flowers that people sniffed to avoid breathing in the smell of decaying bodies. The respiratory issues of WAKS are somewhat Ebola-like.
Ice Cream Star doesn’t have a reason to worry about WAKS yet, as she is only fifteen, until her brother, the leader of her people, the Sengles, approaches his eighteenth birthday. Besides Ice has plenty of other things to occupy her mind as the Sengles are petty thieves who steal to supplement what they hunt. Also, she is mother-figure to many of the Sengles who range in age from babies and up. Considering everyone’s short life span it doesn’t seem like a stretch that she would have such responsibilities. Yet, in other ways Ice Cream Star is exactly like a fifteen year old when it comes to her emotions, which include some complicated feelings for boys in and outside her community. The Sengles are not the only band of survivors in Massa (the former Massachusetts), there is a religious sect called the Christings and the Armies, a violent misogynistic tribe. Yet, it’s among the latter that Ice Cream has a romantic entanglement. I think that was the most frustrating, but also the best part of the book due to the challenge it gives readers. How can Ice with her bravery, leadership qualities and compassion be involved with someone from a group that rapes girls? Even after nearly 600 pages I was still asking that question.
That’s the other rule Ms. Newman broke, the story length. Usually with post-apocalyptic books there is so much action and violence that writing a lengthy book would be like a roller coaster ride for an hour. It’s too much, there’s a reason that any rollercoaster in the world is a short ride albeit an intense one. Usually, if an author in this genre has an extended story to tell they simply end the book at 200-350 pages and continue the story in a sequel. Based on the length of this book I thought it was just a one book story, but I have confirmed that there will be a sequel. I have to hope it will be released soon as after getting use to the new language of the book, it’s cadence feels more natural than when I started, but if I have to wait very long for the sequel, I will have to relearn the language.