so i read a bestseller and lived to write about it

According to biggest love I am the best mom in the world because I let her skip school yesterday to see the latest YA trilogy to hit the big screen.  It was educational, I rationalized, because she would be coming to work with me, seeing me interact with my students, and tagging along on our fieldtrip to the local cinemaplex where we’d planned to watch the movie version of Veronica Roth’s novel Divergent.  My community college students loved the book and wrote some good papers rooted in its themes of transformation and belonging.  I pretty much looked the other way.

Don’t get me wrong–any book that gets non-readers excited and turning pages is better than no book at all.  But this was a writing class, and after spending several weeks teaching them the art of the sentence, how to combine their short simple sentences a variety of ways and tune their voices for a more sophisticated academic audience, we began to read Roth.  Coordination?  Subordination?  Forget the semicolon — she wrote in their voices: simple.  short.  sweet.  Perhaps it isn’t the best book to use as a prose model, but nonetheless, it got them thinking about basic narrative devices and reflecting on their own lives.  And with my lowered expectations, I was not disappointed by the film at all.

It was cheesy.  Undeveloped and altered as most movie versions of novels are.  A dystopian Chicago one hundred years after a civil war, where peace is kept only when individuals commit to one of five factions based on their knowledge of who they think they are (at age 16 *snort): amity, erudite, dauntless, abnegation, or candor.  Choose to remain in the faction you are born into, or leave your family to join another.  Fail and you join the factionless forced to live outside the system.  Of course the protagonist, Tris, does not know where she belongs since her aptitude test was inconclusive.  She’s divergent and must keep this a secret since divergents with more than one dominant character trait pose a threat to the carefully controlled society.  The narrative conflict builds around her decision to leave her abnegation family and join the dauntless, a reckless tribe of horribly stereotypical counterculture types in dark clothing with piercings and tattoos and no concept of the inside voice.  This first book in the trilogy focuses on Tris’s personal transformation from timid girl to brave hero, and I must confess to you I enjoyed this Girl Power aspect of the novel, especially sharing it with my daughter at the theater yesterday.

Some have criticized the story, calling it yet another tale of a brave woman whose transformation still depends on a man’s affection and approval.  While there is some YA romance to keep the pages turning, I have to disagree with this assessment overall and argue there’s a positive upturning of the cart going on here.  My favorite part of the book (and movie) is when Tris’s abnegation mother reveals her own divergence.  In her gray abnegation garb, she steps out of the shadows toting a gun and dauntlessly runs out into the street to cover for her daughter as they make their way through a hailstorm of bullets.  A Princess-Leia-at-her-best moment — you know, Leia with the blaster and not the gold bikini.  Biggest love and I clung tightly to each other during this intense scene in the movie, and I couldn’t help but feel connected to their fearlessness and to the mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself and shield her daughter from danger.  Oh, it’s cliché.  I know.  But it also isn’t.  The dashing and mysterious romantic interest whose affection empowered and encouraged her?  Her father, the political leader of the city?  They’re both incapacitated.  Trapped and helpless.  Dependent on her strength, knowledge, and skill to save them.  Simple.  Short.  Sweet.  But a story worth telling.


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