I'm very much aware of the race-bending/whitewashing controversy around the casting of The Hunger Games. Lots of readers were happy that Katniss Everdeen was, for once, a protagonist not described as a pretty white girl. But of course, when it came time for the movie adaptation they cast a pretty white girl. Shit. So the post-racial book fell victim to our present-racial times, right? Well, wait a second.
We heard in chapter one that even though Katniss and Gale are post-ethnic hybrids, Prim and Katniss's mother are blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans. And now poor little pure, white Prim is in danger, and hardened, tough nonwhite Katniss has to go and save her. The story was, when the casting announcements were made, that the racial politics in America had been dealt another blow. Maybe we weren't as far along as we thought.
Katniss is too stunned to do much of anything for a few seconds, but as her sister steps toward the stage she snaps out of it and screams: “I volunteer!” What? Very quickly she explains to us that people can volunteer if they want to go in another's place. Oh, well that's good! Prim wraps herself around her older sister and begs her not to go, and Katniss has to fight the urge to cry while she shakes the little bitch off. She notes that if people see her crying on the news, she'll be marked as an easy target; there's no crying in Hunger Games ball. Katniss's sudden presence causes some procedural confusion on the stage—I guess people don't volunteer all that much—but she is quickly introduced to the crowd as their female “tribute.” And then something interesting happens.
To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps...I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence.
Instead, nearly every person in the crowd “touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out” to Katniss. (Did you try to imitate the gesture? It's OK, I did too. Were you not really sure which fingers were your THREE middle ones? It's OK, I wasn't either.) She says it's an antiquated gesture meaning “thanks,” “admiration” and “good-bye to someone you love.” Now, we barely know Katniss, and this is a gesture we are JUST hearing about now. That this image is still powerful, moving even, is sort of unusual. I don't know why I care yet, but I care already!
And then Haymitch, the former District 12 champion, stumbles drunkenly in front of the camera and falls off the stage like Ryan Adams. Ah, well.
The bulk of this chapter is actually an extremely detailed flashback, because the name of the male tribute is called and it's a dude named Peeta Mellark, a “stocky” blonde guy with alarmed blue eyes. Let me guess, is he Polish? (I can make Pollack jokes because my old roommate Paul was Polish and here's a true story: it literally took four of him to change a lightbulb once.) Anyway, it turns out he and Katniss have a history. No, not like that, perverts. Our narrator recalls the few months after her father's death in which her family began to starve—we find out that rather than get a job to provide for her family, Mother Everdeen just retreated inside herself (and not in a sexy way). Starvation happens all the time in her district, Katniss says, but officials always list something else as the cause of death like “exposure.” Because they don't want it to look like their citizens are starving? Um, why is it called THE HUNGER GAMES then? Wouldn't THE PLENTIFUL MILK AND HONEY DEATH MATCH be a better title?
Anyway with her mom hidden away at home in her blanket-fort of sorrow, eleven-year-old Katniss was forced to act. But there's only so much an eleven-year-old can do to run a household without the annual rations provided by Hunger Games eligibility—Katniss & Prim's Homemade Lemonade only brings in a couple of nickels unless it's a really hot day, you know? So our heroine goes wandering through the negro streets at dawn with her purgatoried torso looking for an angry fix when she stumbles into the Mellark family backyard, transfixed by the smell of bread. Mr. Mellark is a baker, and Mrs. Mellark is, as it turns out, a big ol' bitch. She tries to chase Katniss away and then goes back into the house to beat her son for burning two loaves of bread. Peeta comes outside then and casually tosses the burned loaves to poor, starving Katniss.
Peeta's so discrete about the whole action that we can't tell how premeditated it was—did he burn the bread on purpose so he could give it to her? The next day, at school, Katniss sees him (with a big bruise on his face) staring at her. She looks down at her feet to avoid him and sees the first dandelion of the season, which gives her hope that she'll be able to keep her family alive. It's a heavily symbolic moment for our narrator (I mean she pretty much says “it's a pretty important motif in my story—I mean life”) and ever since, springtime and survival and Peeta and bread and pita bread are all associated in her brain. Back in the present, Katniss is pissed because she never even thanked Peeta for the whole thing and now she has to kill him. Ain't that always the way?
Stray Notes & Questions
- I'm starting to come around to the present tense thing. The overwhelming consensus last time was that doing so creates a sense of urgency. Okay, fine, but Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Masque Of The Red Death” in past-tense and still managed, you know? Past-tense is (or was) the English-Lit, Western-Civ standard. It's also a little bit harder to do—part of me feels like writing fiction in the present tense is setting the cognitive bar a little low for your readers. Am I being a tense snob?
- This is hard to work into a re-cap, but there's a recurring jokes about odds that I'm enjoying so far. Effie Trinket, one of the HG officials, has a little catch-phrase: “May the odds be ever in your favor.” The first time we hear it, Katniss and Gale are mocking it while they hunt. Katniss references it a few more times before Effie Trinket actually says it herself. And several times in this chapter, Katniss will comfort herself with the probability that she won't have to do something only to recall that the odds are rarely, if ever, in her favor. I see what you are doing there, Katniss.