September 07, 2017

The Winnowing

Written by Vikki VanSickle
Scholastic Canada
312 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2017

If powerful people believed in a theory, it became real.  It didn’t matter if it was crazy.” (pg. 292)

In Marivic Stone’s world, there are many beliefs that are accepted as real.  There’s the Infertility Crisis that was only resolved by SuperGen, a hormonal shot developed by the Barton Five scientists. There are the stigmatizing changes at puberty that include the Adolescent Physical Impairments a.k.a. imps which produce bizarre traits of superhuman eyesight or hearing or speed or strength, and the ACEs, Adolescent Chronosomniatic Episodes, which are vivid night terrors.  No wonder young people who begin to experience the imps and ACEs are eager to be winnowed at their local center for adolescent health to stop the progression of these horrors.

When the ACEs and imps arrive for Marivic, she is fully prepared to be checked into the Barton Center for Adolescent Health, the facility to which best friend Saren Silver had only gone the day before.  Though she doesn’t know what to expect, as those winnowed have memory impairment, and though she knows complications can lead to death, as they did for Saren’s older brother Lex, Marivic sees the winnowing as a rite of passage in which she is eager to engage.  But things seem less clear when a group of new intakes, including Marivic and Saren and classmates Kamal, Quin, and Tavi, are invited to a covert “Dis-orientation.”  There a young teen, Abbot, tells them that everything they’ve been told about the winnowing and Barton is untrue and that the organization called Winfree, the People for a Winnowing Free World, wants to help them escape before they come to harm. Most of the teens scoff at the idea of the authorities conspiring to hide the truth about the winnowing, ACEs, imps and more but, after learning the next day that Saren died during her winnowing, Marivic goes rogue–“Mrs. Silver could be sad for both of us.  I was going to be angry.” (pg. 121)–and joins Kamal in escaping the facility.

But getting out is just the beginning.  In addition to Abbot, who harbours a secret about his own origins, Marivic and Kamal are introduced to Dr. Lowry, one of the original Barton Five, who reveals the source of the SuperGen and her research on the ACEs; Ren, a young man with whom Marivic is able to communicate telepathically; and Daisy, the proprietor of the Starlight Diner and adopted mum of Abbot.  There are a lot of theories to sort through regarding the truth and lies about the winnowing and SuperGen but some answers will only come when Marivic breaks back into Barton.  She may be on a rescue mission, but she has no idea that she is the key to blowing open the whole conspiracy.

Reaching adolescence is never easy but not as problematic as in Vikki VanSickle’s first novel of speculative fiction for teens.  Just as the term winnowing suggests–cleaning of the chaff from the grain–the adolescents are sanitized from the effects of puberty.  But it’s the wholesale acceptance of the need for this process that is so alarming.  It’s easy to understand how a crisis, like infertility, can establish fear but it’s this fear that allows government and experts to make recommendations that are accepted as necessary.  There’s a type of internal terrorism to promote compliance.  Only when anomalies such as death at winnowing and the existence of those conceived without benefit of SuperGen–Abbot is one of these Naturals–contradict the accepted belief system that the faith and submission are shattered.  But it takes courage and conviction to see beyond the established way of doing things and Vikki VanSickle makes sure that readers see Marivic as someone who is enlightened enough to question these incongruities as important.

In fact, it’s Marivic who is astute enough recognize that it’s the fears of those who are different that are the source of the problems, leading to paranoia and violence.  Whether it’s seeing the Naturals like Abbot as a threat–“…if superhuman is the new normal, then where does that leave me?” (pg. 238)–or seeing danger from those only seeking refuge, fear distorts thinking and creates the very problems they hope to avoid.

Vikki VanSickle has lots to say about fear, distrust, manipulation, and blind submission but also about defiance, courage and winnowing the irrational to reveal the truth.  What The Winnowing teaches us is that there is a need for caution in construing meaning within the realm of fear, as well as for openness and respect for all.

Look for my Q & A with author Vikki VanSickle tomorrow as part of the blog tour celebrating the release of The Winnowing.  Vikki VanSickle reveals much about her path to writing speculative fiction and her enthusiasm for sci-fi and The X Files.

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