January 03, 2012

All Good Children

by Catherine Austen
Orca Book Publishers
300 pp.
Ages 14+

Here's a way to start out 2012: read about a future that is so terrifyingly probable that you wonder how we're ever going to stop it from happening.  Catherine Austen's All Good Children may be science fiction but it certainly alludes to the direction we may be heading.  How many readers have heard a teacher, librarian, parent or any adult who works with young people declare repeatedly about young troublemakers taking all of their time and efforts?  If you have, then All Good Children could be our future, sadly.

Max Connors and his best friend, Dallas Richmond, would both consider themselves fifteen-year-old troublemakers and smile at that label.  In their gated community of New Middleton, owned by Chemrose International, they pull a lot of pranks, don't hold back their opinions of others, live for their RIGs (Realtime Integrated Gateways) and religiously follow Freakshow, an "entertaining" reality show in which deformed adults (as a result of chemical contamination) compete against each other.  The boys and their families are actually very fortunate: first, by living in a region devoid of environmental disasters such the drowning of New York City or desiccation of Phoenix; second, by living in homes in New Middleton, rather than the tents or shanties of the forests outside the gates; and, third, by attending academic schools because of their genetic status (Dallas is an ultimate, and Max a best-of-three) and not being the throwaway kids of the trade schools. 

In fact, Max's little sister, Ally, a six-year-old, has been very fortunate having missed the first week of school when the family (Mom, Max and herself) attended a funeral in Atlanta.  Upon their return, Ally notes that all the Grade 1 and 2 students are acting kind of slow and fuzzy, emoting very little, repeatedly using phrases about being lucky to be in school and that all their teachers deserve respect.  Consequently Ally is cited as not fitting in at her academic school and transferred to a trade school.  With a bit of investigating at the middle school, Max, his brilliant but quirky neighbour, Xavier, and Dallas learn of a new motivational leadership program called NEST (New Education Support Treatment) being delivered to all students, youngest first, via vaccination.  Max's mother, a nurse at a geriatric facility where patients are subjected to a similar treatment,  is determined not to allow her children to be vaccinated and initiates plans to evade the mandatory program.

While the plot keeps the reader on edge, anticipating exposure of Max and Dallas' deception and the family's plan for evasion, the moral dilemma of identifying children as "good" or not and consequent programs to improve their status was far more compelling to me.  Skillfully, Catherine Austen ensures that Max is seen as a smart aleck kid who has moments of brilliance and compassion, helping the readers clarify their own perspectives on this new world and its way of doing things.  Does Max need to be turned into a "good" child or is he already such a child, just an individual?  Who is able to judge a child's "goodness": a parent/guardian, a principal, a teacher, the child?  Think about the number of mothers of criminals who will claim that their children have good hearts or would never have done anything like that.  Really?  Should I trust their assessment or look to the evidence?  Having seen enough students similar to Max in my classes, I would never classify him as a "good child" but I would surely support his right to be an individual.

Moreover, while mass vaccination of a population is not unusual (e.g., against polio and small pox), their use to ensure compliance and the lack of opportunity to decline treatment is more akin to forced psychiatric drugging than "motivational leadership".  A rose by any other name?  Be the child or the parent/guardian and the perspectives may be very different, whether it is called nesting or psychiatric treatment.  Dallas' father certainly has a different perspective than his son and Max's mom.

As in her first book, Walking Backward (Orca, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Canadian Library Association's 2010 Book of the Year for Children Award, in which a family comes to terms with the mother's death, Catherine Austen poignantly reveals the psychological workings of a family under duress with parent and children all searching for clarity and understanding and always hope.  Charmingly, hope is offered in a country called Canada.

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