In Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King, Glory O’Brien has no future. Despite her impending high school graduation, and her talent as a reflective and creative photographer, Glory has applied to no colleges and made no plans. Glory has become paralyzed by the fear of becoming her mother, Darla. Darla O’Brien, also a smart, funny, creative young woman and a gifted photographer, committed suicide when Glory was four years old. Glory’s father never recovered, giving up on his own career as a painter and eating himself to 400 pounds; he has stopped truly living. Glory has a “best friend,” Ellie, who is a friend only by default of proximity. Though Ellie brags about one day running away from her family’s controlling hippie commune, she too has no future plans.
When Glory and Ellie drink the desiccated remains of a bat, the two girls can suddenly see the past and future of each person they meet. And Glory sees horrific things. Everyone’s future culminates in a second Civil War, the history of which Glory begins to write down. She seeks out new people to piece together the story of this future she uncovers, and in doing so discovers her own past, present, and future. She gains the courage to ask questions about her mom, sets healthier boundaries with the parasitic Ellie, and reconnects with her dad. Readers watch a frightened teen become a compassionate, courageous young adult who not only turns away from numb despair toward hope, but helps others do the same. Despite the dark future Glory sees, knowledge that she will play a role in the future empowers her. She has the power to build her own future and begins to do just that.
A more visceral apocalyptic tale, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is quite literally a story of piss, shit, blood, and semen – the very stuff of life. The dust jacket promises catastrophic action, with 6-foot, man-eating praying mantises, yet these monsters don’t appear till almost 150 pages into the story. And while they do provide pretty provocative action, they are but a metaphorical and atmospheric backdrop for Austin Sczerba’s quest for truth. Austin is chronicling the history of the end of the world as these giant bugs take over. And much like the giant bugs, EVERYTHING in the history of the end of the world makes Austin horny – most of all his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend Robby. They are both in love with him, and he with them. Austin can’t decide between the two people he loves more than anything in the world and he smashes both their hearts trying not to decide between them. But this is not the real crux of the story either.
As Austin tells his personal history of the end of the world, he recounts the history of his Polish immigrant ancestors (and their glamorous urinals), vagrants, cooks, neighbors (and their testicles), friends, strangers, politicians (and their testicles), teachers, Saint Casimir, a mad scientist (and his semen), cave painters, and humanity itself. In the larger narrative created, we are a bunch of messy animals, trying and failing miserably to prevent the repetition of our own mistakes. And the inevitability of it is gut wrenching, terrifying, and tragic. The bugs, Austin, his friends, and family become a metaphor for all of humanity desperately chronicling their terrible mistakes in an effort to create some tiny change in human history. It’s funny and clever, crude and uncomfortable, raw and poignant, and absolutely heartbreaking. This is a story, like all of Andrew Smith’s, that will stay with me.
These were excellent books to juxtapose – both about teens finding themselves amidst tragedy, the unraveling of civilizations, and the connectedness of past, present, and future. But the history chronicled by Glory O’Brien pales in comparison to that written by Austin Sczerba. Glory’s magical visions of the future are almost unnecessary to the novel. They are emotionally distant, lifeless, lacking detail. But her story is more accessible than Grasshopper Jungle. I will be book-talking Glory’s story to my students, not Austin’s. Yet Grasshopper Jungle wins this competition, hands down. Austin’s history of apocalypse is acerbic, poetically profane, and epic in scope. The many layered meanings of Austin’s story, while creating a rich and complex picture of the human condition, do make it impenetrable to an inexperienced teen reader. This book requires a special student – one with advanced reading skills but also liberal appreciation of scatological and sexual references. For that reader, however, this book will dig inside and crack them open like the giant bugs of MI Plague Strain 412E.
P.S. I’m glad that Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, Shaun of the Dead) has signed on to direct the movie version of Grasshopper Jungle. If anyone can do this book justice, it’s the creator of The World’s End.
Winner: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith