Monday, February 03, 2014

Divergent by Veroinca Roth

In this age of electronic games and devices, I’m always glad to see or hear that young people are reading. I have a niece, Kate, who, like I, is an avid reader. Knowing that I love books, she gave me for Christmas a favorite book of hers, and I read it in a couple of days over the holidays. Since I have almost never reviewed what might be called teen fiction, I decided to talk about this book today. I am so proud of her as a studious reader, and expect her to be a good member of the world she finds herself in. 

The book is titled Divergent and was a first novel for Veronica Roth. From what I hear, it will soon be made into a movie, and is the first of a trilogy that will have a very large following among young people. Besides being quite an interesting adventure/mystery, I think the moral questions and dilemmas presented in the book make it much more important than simply an interesting page-turner.

The plot is a fairly complicated one, and there are many surprises in the end, none of which I have any intention of divulging, but I will lay out the general theme of the book and say why I think it is a good read for serious-minded young people (and quite entertaining for us older folk as well).

The novel is a futuristic (dystopian) description of a rigorously stratified society divided into five factions: Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless. Reminiscent of  Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, at the age of sixteen all children go through a choosing ceremony, at which time they may either remain in the group they have been raised in, or leave their families and choose a new group.  In Pierce’s overtly political and feminist novel, adolescents choose a new name for themselves and leave their families in a kind of coming-of-age ceremony. After that time, they may choose to continue to relate with their families, but no longer as parents or sons and daughters, but simply as equal members of society.

The sixteen year olds in Divergent take an aptitude test shortly before the choosing ceremony, and are told then which group  they have an aptitude for. However, they are not bound by the results of the aptitude test, and may freely choose a group other than the one they have been born to or the one the aptitude test suggests. The names of the groups describe roughly their roles. The lead character, Beatrice (who changes her name to Trice) comes from an Abnegation family. Abnegation folks are selfless and do service work for the community. They wear gray clothing, do not call attention to themselves in either dress or action. Candor are straight-forward and apt to say whatever is on their minds, quite willing to debate with any who hold opposing views, and quite willing to give critical appraisals. "Their faction values honesty and sees the truth as black and white, so that is what they wear." The Erudite class are the intellectuals who study hard and are supposed to serve the community in planning decisions. The Dauntless are the warriors who protect the fences that border the cities and are known for their bravery. They are tattooed and have body piercings; they jump onto and off of moving trains and perform other acts of rather reckless bravery. The Amity are less clearly defined, but are often described as laughing and singing and wearing colorful clothes (red and yellows). There are also some who are factionless, either because they have been kicked out of their chosen faction or have failed to choose. The factionless are left to fend for themselves, and it is clearly dangerous and daunting to be without a faction.

As Beatrice tells us early in the book, the Choosing Ceremony is an important and sometimes frightful time for the young. "I will decide on a faction: I will decide the rest of my life; I will decide to stay with my family or abandon them." Although it is possible to have a bit of time with family on Visitor’s Day even if one chooses a different faction, there is tremendous pressure to treat faction over family, and the chances for any meaningful connections with family if one chooses a different faction are minimal.

Much to the surprise of their Abnegation parents, Both Beatrice and her brother Caleb choose to leave their family and faction. Trice chooses the Dauntless faction, and Caleb the Erudite. Although Caleb re-enters the action late in the book, it is Trice’s initiation into the Dauntless faction and the daily life that it involves that is described. The reader also realizes early in the book that Trice's aptitude test has indicated quite divergent results, although a kind tester saves her from actually being labeled Divergent, since Divergents are seen as threats to the existing order, and if discovered, punished by becoming factionless.

What I find uplifting about the book are the moral dilemmas Trice is faced with because of her divergent aptitudes and her love for her family. Eventually, she comes to believe that "Selflessness and bravery aren’t that different," and instead of shunning her divergent tendencies, she embraces them. Along with a brave boyfriend (who is a trainer for the Dauntless initiates, and also shows divergent aptitudes), they uncover a sinister plot hatched by a power-hungry Erudite who has found a way to electronically brainwash the Dauntless and use their fearlessness to her own ends. 

I also found the portrayal of the relationship between Tobias and Trice to be a good and wholesome one. While there are mild sexual overtones to the book, rather than appealing to a teenage audience by sensationalizing the sexual element, Roth accentuates fidelity and genuine caring for the other rather than focusing on sex. 

I was often reminded of Plato’s distinction between genuine courage and foolhardiness as I read this book. There is a plea for tolerance to be found in its pages, and a clear warning against allowing peer pressure to get in the way of morality and truth. All and all, were I a parent of a teenager, I would recommend this book to them, as I recommend it you. Indeed, I have to admit I will probably see the movie when it comes out, although I rather doubt I will read the other books in the promised trilogy.

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