Book Review: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti
Thanksgiving 2021

Book Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

After Goodnight Moon I never thought I’d care about anyone’s hair again. But you can’t ever imagine what you’re going to care about when you turn into the version of you that’s waiting on the other side of five years from now. That’s a stranger waiting to ambush you, and all you can do is plant your feet and try not to get thrown.

I worry a lot about the environment and the damage we are doing to it. I know not everyone understands that, and many of my friends and family think I’m ridiculous, swept up in some media-induced fearmongering, but really it goes far into my past. In 1991 I took an ecology class for one of my science credits and that is when I first learned about things like global warming, the J-shaped curve of the population explosion, water and air pollution, greenhouse gasses, endangered species, sea birds strangled by soda-pop plastic. Since then I have worried about it. I do what I can (recycle, try to reduce my carbon input, support companies trying to innovate in environmental ways); when I build or buy a different house I will install solar panels. But I have carried that anxious worry ever since, my whole adult life in fact.

(If you want a fun story ask me about the time I exploded at one of my sisters for her faux-news-inspired take on the Green New Deal and how betrayed I felt by another sister who told me she didn’t know I was a conspiracy theorist.)

So why add to the anxiety by reading post-climate-apocalypse novels?

The devil you know, I suppose.

Practicing to live in a ruined world.

Searching for some clue to what I might do to change it.

Past is redThe Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente is unabashedly post-apocalyptic. It’s set perhaps two hundred years in the future, where the polar ice caps are gone and all ice is gone and snow is gone, and all that’s left is blue earth. No land, but some things still float, enough to support some human life. Tetly Abednego lives on Garbage Town, an enormous floating garbage island. When the flooding happened, all of the garbage was sorted, and she was born in the spot where all the candles went. She has a twin brother, who might love her, and parents who decidedly don’t, and when she heads out into the wasteland of Garbage Town, things happen. She makes choices that change society, loses people who love her, gains others. (You have to read it to experience her adventures.)

But what doesn’t change is her hopefulness.

She doesn’t love this world she’s been born into, but she doesn’t hate it like others do; she is able to find happiness in the heaps and piles, in houses constructed out of refuse. And the place this story takes you to—I did not expect to go there. In the face of Tetley’s hope, where the story ends up is absolutely devastating, except Tetley still keeps on hoping. I can’t explain it as well as the author does in the afterword:

Tetley is beyond all the fear and uncertainty of the present. She lives in her world, the only world she has ever known, and it shines for her, as the ‘50s shine for one generation and the ‘80s for another, despite the dystopia of both periods. She is, in some sense, my best hope for us, for our future, that we will live, and remember a little, and some of us will even bey happy, after everything goes to hell. She is the part of humanity that will love anything, find meaning in anything, build a new civilization out of anything, because it’s a compulsion with us. I don’t have a lot of hope for the powers that be pulling us out of the tailspin they put us into. But I have hope for Tetley. For the other worlds to come, which will not be this one, which may never have the ease of this one again, but which will be, one way or another. And be loved by someone.

In a sense, I am in the midst of my own little apocalypse right now. “My own” but also others. I don’t know what the world to come will look like or how I will find joy in all of that damage. But reading this novel made me just a little bit hopeful. That somehow there will be joy, goodness, connection, the opposite of loneliness (what is that?), happiness. That I will be able to love that world too.

I hope I never forget this book and how it made me feel.


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