Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hunger Games II: What does it take for coal to catch fire?

Anthracite coal miners - Hazleton, PA
at the time of the coal strike of 1902
I've been reading the Hunger Games trilogy because I think we need to pierce the veil of popular entertainment culture and figure out how to use it to change the world we live in.

When I started Book II -- Catching Fire -- I thought this was going to be an "action" tale -- all about combat and weapons. But what really got my attention was the depiction of oppressed coal miners.

Of course any Hunger Games fan knows District 12 is the coal mining district, and that coal mining is a terrible job: "The claustrophobic tunnels, foul air, suffocating darkness on all sides. . . . [A]fter my father and several other miners were killed in an explosion, I could barely force myself onto the elevator." (II, p. 5)

What's really interesting is the way Book II depicts people becoming aware of their own oppression, including the forces of state repression, and developing consciousness of the need to resist.

It first jumped out at me the protagonist wonders if she should've acted differently -- if that would have allowed everyone in her coal mining district to remain safe. Her friend sets her straight:

"Safe to do what?" he says in a gentler tone. "Starve? Work like slaves? Send their kids to the reaping? You haven't hurt people -- you've given them an opportunity.  They just have to be brave enough to take it. There's already been talk in the mines. People who want to fight. Don't you see? It's happening! It's finally happening! . . . " (II, pp. 99-100)

When I read this, I thought, "Oh my gosh -- Germinal!"

Emile Zola, Germinal
Way back in the fall of 1978, when I was a sophomore at Harvard, I took a wonderful course on 19th century European history with a visiting professor -- Simon Schmama. I wrote a paper on the forces of repression depicted in Germinal -- Emile Zola's novel about an uprising in the French coal mining region in the 1800s. I wrote pages and pages about it -- I remember the moment when I handed in the overdue term paper and Prof. Schama said, "It's very late . . . and very long!" -- and I wish I still had a copy of it. But I also know everything I learned in doing it can be summed up in one sentence: the police are here to keep us in line; and that it begins with "subtle" hints, and by stages becomes full-on suppression of rebellion.

Sure enough, Catching Fire explores this exact phenomenon. As the rumblings of dissatisfaction in the mines increase, the state responds:

"The square has been transformed. A huge banner with the seal of Panem hangs off the roof of the Justice Building. Peacekeepers, in pristine white uniforms, march on the cleanly swept cobblestones. Along the rooftops, more of them occupy nests of machine guns. Most unnerving is a line of new constructions -- an official whipping post, several stockades, and a gallows -- set up in the center of the square." (II, p. 128)

"Justice" Building. "Peacekeepers."

And it is from this point that the rest of the plot of Book II develops . . . .

Coal . . . on fire . . .
Now, I'll admit that Catching Fire does also contain "action tale" plot elements -- combat and weapons -- but what I think is really valuable to all of us in the peace and justice field is how it is exposing millions of young people to questions like:

* Is the way that many people are treated fair? Is it acceptable?

* What does it take for people to stand up and resist their own oppression?

* What does the state try to do to stop them?

(Okay . . . off to buy Book III!)

More on the Hunger Games - Germinal connection: 

‘Suzanne Collins on the Books She Loves’

"Comparons Germinal and Hunger Games"

Related posts

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