If a disaster ripped away everything you knew and everyone you loved, would you still believe?
Natural disasters and wars render damage on incomprehensible scales. At the same time, however, it always comes down to one’s personal world being destroyed. We are horrified when we hear that tsunamis kill a quarter million people, but though we read the numbers, we can’t begin to comprehend it all. Even if you lived in one of the many towns wiped from the map and somehow managed to survive, you see but one devastating part of the numbers. But it’s that part that shapes you, and one that you can never put away.
During such times, some people ask, even demand to know, why a supposedly benevolent God allows these things to happens. Others conclude that God is malevolent, and turn away from Him. And still others wonder if there is a God at all. How do you reorganize your life when you’re aware that the rules can change on you so quickly, so tragically, and for so little (or even no) reason?
Does belief have any value in a world where waves destroy entire villages?
I’m impressed with how much Nation gets right.1 And I’m impressed with how honest it is: the narrative, though it has Terry Pratchett’s usual funny patter throughout, cuts no corners and coats nothing with sugar. I’ve read “serious”2 works that handle such events as just so much background noise, or handles them with sugar tongs like ladies making tea; Nation gets its hands dirty and puts that “noise” at the forefront.
Nation is about the pain of loss, and how deeply and irrevocably it cuts. Nation is also about healing, and how necessary and insufficient it is. Nation is about the scientific method and asking questions, growing up as a person and as a culture, and dealing with new rules in wave-scoured worlds. Nation is the destruction test of belief—not exposing insufficiency of the person, but the insufficiency in belief. But Nation is also, surprisingly, about belief as it simply is.3
As is the custom these days, Nation is a young adult book, and obviously a dark one.4 The main characters, Mau and Daphne5, are in their early teenage years—this is the Victorian era6, so they’re both in coming-of-age range. Mau is from an island culture. At the beginning of the book, he’s canoeing back home from a month spent on the Boys’ Island, about to return as a man. Daphne is on Sweet Judy, voyaging from her childhood home in London7 to her father’s new home, where he’s the governor of a British island colony.
And then the wave came.
What ensues is both terribly true and terribly funny. Pain and sorrow are portrayed realistically and in the moment, not melodramatically, and not as plot points8. From the disassociation of Mau as he buries the bodies of his fellow villagers (no survivors), to the work- and duty-buried sorrow of Daphne’s father at the loss of his wife and son (and it’s constantly pricked by a Grandmother Harridan whose level of understanding is shallow), to Daphne’s denial of her father dying in the same storm that destroyed the Sweet Judy and wiped out Mau’s village.
So, too, is anger described in its ability to fuel someone past the point where you break and into the area where you do something about it—like taking care of refugees that keep showing up, looking for food, for shelter, for organization because when everything is in disarray, that’s the first thing you look for. There is the anger that can turn into voices in your head, scolding you for not having done enough. And then there is anger at the gods and ancestors and belief, or—in the other direction—anger that enhances belief because otherwise the world is insane. Mau’s conflict with the priest Ataba is quite believable, as is the reason why Ataba is so fervent.
It’s not all sadness and anger; connection plays an important role as well. Despite the maximum cultural dissonance between each other, the theme of connection starts with the misunderstandings between Mau and Daphne (the first real incident involving a gun but fortunately also wet gun powder) and the development of understanding each other. I enjoyed the scene where they spend time on the beach learning words from each other’s languages, which was poignant, and funny, and sad. But that’s just the beginning; when new refugees arrive in threes and fours, individual and cultural integration happens again and again—not all of the islands were part of The Nation, after all. Ultimately, it’s the human connection that keeps them all alive, especially Mau.
Nation ends in a non-traditional way, whether you’re considering the end of the main story or the epilogue. And how Nation answers the question of belief in despair is... both interesting and understated. And for once it’s actually an answer I believe in.
1 No natural disaster experience on my part, but I’ve lost enough over the years to regard the concepts of “permanent housing,” “friends I will always know,” and “cherished mementos” a bit bizarre.
2 i.e., not (intentionally) humorous.
3 Such conflicting themes should come as no surprise to those familiar with Pratchett’s earlier work, Small Gods, which has the distinction of having been strongly argued as both in support of religion and against religion. That’s a difficult trick to pull, and hats off to every author who manages it.
4 Frankly, that’s where all the fun is. The teenage years are when you start asking the really troublesome questions that your parents had hoped you wouldn’t bring up in quite such a direct manner. “Children can be more serious about important things,” Pratchett once said.
5 Her real name is Ermintrude. If you had that name, you’d pick something else too.
6 Surprisingly, Nation is not a Discworld book, even though the bulk of Pratchett’s work tends to be set there; rather, it’s set in an alternate history of our world. So it’s really an alternate historical novel, with the occasional tree-climbing octopus (which actually has a point in the story).
7 Where Grandmother Harridan lives. That should have been her name.
8 i.e., “His mother was killed by barbarians when he was little! It drives him to become a barbarian and have barbarous adventures which we will now recount for many books never to refer to it again!”