Some Light Reading for the End of the World

I get a kick out of a story that can combine world-changing, terrifying, and sometimes supernatural events with a fairly traditional, mundane coming of age story. This is one of the many things I love about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Shaun David Hutchinson also showed his skill with this kind of work in We are the Ants and he doubled down in his latest novel, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza.

At first glance, Elena Mendoza is similar to lots of teenage protagonists. School can be rough – she isn’t exactly popular, but she has made her own community. She loves her mom and younger siblings but hates her loser stepdad. I can keep going: her job sucks, Freddie, the girl she pines for, seems to have no clue she exists, inanimate objects often speak to her and she is the product of a virgin birth. Like I said, pretty typical.

81G6+tEFWqLSo about that virgin birth thing. Despite being shouldered with a “miracle child” moniker, there is a scientific explanation for Elena’s situation. She is the first proven human case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction involving an unfertilized egg. Other than some cruel classmates who nicknamed her Mary, Elena has largely been able to shed any spotlight that might come from the unique circumstances of her birth. Time heals all wounds and brings enough sensational news stories each day to allow hers to fade away.  

The voices Elena hears are a little harder to explain, but truth be told they give her advice that usually proves helpful so she has learned to live with them and hide them from the surrounding world, even from her mother and her best friend, Fadil. Then one day while at work she witnesses a classmate shoot Freddie and is told by the logo on a Starbucks cup to save Freddie’s life. Though it defies explanation, Elena is able to heal Freddie and her reputation as a miracle girl comes storming back, bringing Elena a mess of unwanted attention.

To make matters worse, the boy who shot Freddie disappeared in a ray of light right after Elena performed her “miracle.” The voices tell Elena that she must heal more people to save the world. Fadil, a devout Muslim, tells her to trust in God and plenty of others tell her she is either crazy or a fraud. For her part, Elena is sure there must be some sort of scientific explanation and she is reluctant to use her powers. But with so many people suffering around her, how can she resist? Unfortunately, every time she heals someone, people disappear in strange beams of light. And as her profile grows, more people seem to want to use her, from her selfish stepdad to shadowy government agents. So Elena is left with quite the needle to thread: save the world, avoid manipulation, solve this rapture mystery and figure out if Freddie likes her or resents her for saving her life. No sweat?

Hutchinson packs a lot into this book and in less capable hands this story could have gone off the rails or veered into religious speculation that just isn’t my taste. Yet Elena is a sensible, compassionate, and delightfully wry narrator who manages to keep this wild novel somewhat grounded. I loved her mix of optimism and pragmatism and her quick banter with Fadil, Freddie, and her ex-boyfriend Javi.  

More than anything else, however, I appreciate the way this book handles identity. I read a lot of YA fiction that features queer characters and I appreciate the thought and care with which so many authors today write about questioning or discovering sexuality, coming out, facing bigotry, and finding acceptance. I also believe, however, that we need stories like this one. Elena has lots of insecurities but is perfectly open and comfortable with her bisexuality. And that is also how she is treated by Hutchinson. Her identity is only addressed as it pertains to the story. It’s a fact of life, not a plot point. The same could be said for the treatment of Fadil’s religion and Elena’s Cuban-American heritage. Hutchinson’s matter-of-fact approach to diverse representation not only makes for great writing but creates a world that I want to live in. Even if it is on the brink of apocalypse.

They Sure Look Like Ants From Up Here

I have always wondered what it would be like to be so far down the rabbit hole of love that you don’t need to doubt it. I’ll admit it; I’ve never been in love. Not proper love, not the kind where you fall asleep at night assured that love is going to be there in the morning. I’ve also wondered what it would be like to be abducted by aliens and told I’m the deciding factor for whether the world ends or not.

wearetheantsThis is what happens to Henry Denton in Shaun David Hutchinson’s We Are the Ants.

Henry lives with his mother, his brother Charlie and his Alzheimer’s stricken grandma in Florida. He and Charlie’s father split years ago and they haven’t heard or seen him since. Charlie’s kind of an asshole, but not in the regular way older brothers are assholes to their siblings. His treatment of Henry verges on physical abuse. Charlie’s flunked out of college and gotten his girlfriend Zooey pregnant. Zooey is pretty cool and an amazing influence on Charlie. Think “You make me want to be a better man.”  Their mother is an exhausted waitress who chain-smokes while trying to keep her world together. Grandma is slowly losing the thread of the story.

And Henry keeps getting abducted by aliens. It’s been happening for years, ever since he was little but nobody believes him. He calls the aliens sluggers because they look like, well….slugs. They aren’t big on communication and ‘talk’ to Henry by gesturing at pictures.  Fortunately, they’re not big on anal probing. They usually drop him off miles from home either naked or in his underwear. Aliens either have a wicked sense of humor or the idea of pants is ridiculous to them.

They do, however, want him to make the biggest decision of not only his life but the entire planet’s life: push a giant red button and the world continues, don’t push it and life ends. They give him 144 days to make the decision. The world as we know it will end on January 29, 2016 at 20:03 GMT. Most people would automatically say “I’m pushing the button because I want humanity to continue to thrive. There’s so much living to do. There might be a cure for cancer or stupidity out there. I can’t end the world.” I fall somewhere in the middle: “Meh, I might not push the button and let this ridiculous world keep going or I might push it and let’s all get on with the afterlife.” Then again, I can’t make a decision to save my life. Don’t ask me what time I want to go to lunch because I’ll freeze and blurt out “1964!”

But Henry seems to have a very good reason to want the world to end. His boyfriend, Jesse, killed himself last year and left no note, no reason explaining why he did it. What hurts almost as much is that Henry also lost his best friend Audrey who completed their trio. He won’t speak to her even though she tries to become his friend again. She has her own demons to deal with and a secret she’s not about to admit to anyone.

Henry is unpopular at school, his nickname being Space Boy because everyone thinks he’s nuts for saying he’s constantly getting abducted by aliens. Uber popular Marcus is a jock and a bully and secretly in the closet. When others are around, he mercilessly picks on Henry but when they’re alone he acts like he wants to be with him. And why does Henry allow it? Because in a weird way, he thinks he needs to be punished. His boyfriend killed himself and he thinks maybe it was his fault. How many of us have done THE stupidest things because we thought we didn’t deserve any better? Did you see how fast my hand went up? I think I broke the sound barrier.

Henry’s life is a mess and now, Diego Vega moves to town and Henry starts to wonder, does he deserve to love and be loved again? What’s Diego’s story? What happened in Colorado that forced him to move to Florida? Is Diego even gay? Why does Henry have all these feelings? Is he being disloyal to the memory of Jesse?

As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough, Henry is constantly getting abducted by impatient aliens who want him to decide if the world should continue or if it should end. When I was 16 my hardest decision was Cocoa Puffs or Lucky Charms for breakfast. Okay. That actually is still my hardest decision some days and I’m now almost 40. Oh man. Now I want some Lucky Charms. Where was I? Oh yeah. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Do I have to pay REM for using those lyrics? Only if I earn money with this blog post?  Oh, okay. Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen.

So what should Henry do? Push the button because he believes in love and life and the future? Or ignore the button because humanity is doomed to misery and he’s doing everyone a favor by letting the world end? The decision rests heavily on a teenaged Space Boy.