Catching Fire Book Review

On February 11, 2011, I sneaked a peak at Wikipedia at work.  I gasped as soon as I pulled it up; the news section announced that Hosni Mubarak, the dictator in charge of Egypt, had been deposed by the military.  I had briefly followed the uprisings in Egypt, but never believed that they could actually be successful.  My next thought immediately after that was a quote I had read years ago, that Egypt is the heart and soul of the Arab world, and that anything that happens in Egypt eventually reverberates throughout the Middle East.  “This is going to be massive,” I thought.

I had those same thoughts as I turned through the pages of Catching Fire, which describes how Katniss’ moment in the arena has provided a spark for uprisings and insurgence in the land of Panem.  At the end of The Hunger Games, Peta and Katniss are left alive in the arena, believing that they are both allowed to go home alive.  However, at that moment, the voice announces that the previous rule, which allowed both tributes from the same district to win, was rescinded.  Only one of them will be allowed to win.  Katniss is horrified, and neither one of them can face going home after killing the other.  It is at that moment that Katniss has a brilliant, dangerous idea; she decides to bluff.  Realizing that the head game maker would rather have two victors than no victors, she pulls out poisonous berries she had been keeping in her pocket, and hands them to Peta.  They decide to eat them at the same time, in a dangerous game of chicken with the game makers.  They win, as at the last possible second, the game makers frantically shout, “Stop!  Stop!” and declare that both of them are the winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games.

That action, that moment of rebellion, when they call the Capital’s bluff, is a spark that ignites most of the districts in Panem.  President Snow, at the beginning of Catching Fire, who warns her that her actions have caused national instability.  He insists that Katniss pretend even more strongly to be in love with Peta, to try to heal the country, and save her life.  He makes thinly veiled threats at Gale if she fails to convince everyone that she is truly in love with Peta.

Katniss begins her whirlwind victory tour, and sees hints of the social unrest in the other districts, and of the terribly oppressive tactics used by the government to keep the citizenry in line. She and Peta also struggle with the aftermath of the games.

One of the most poignant features of the books are the descriptions of the way the victors suffer after winning the games.  Katniss and Peta both suffer from nightmares and flashbacks, and can’t get the images out of their minds.  Peta had his leg amputated after the games, and came back with a prosthetic leg.  Haymitch drinks constantly, and many other tributes suffer from drug addictions of various kinds.

Suzanne Collins famously said that she was inspired to write The Hunger Games after watching footage of the War on Terror.  However, I think something else is also lingering in her mind in these passages.  Collin’s father served in the Vietnam War.  I have no idea how her father fared following the war, but she is undoubtedly aware at the condition of many of the men that survived Vietnam.  We can see all of these elements in the victors.  Katniss and Peta suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, and cannot get the images out of their minds.  They also struggle to adapt to life back home, and feel isolated from those around them.  Haymitch numbs the pain with drink; others numb the pain with drugs.  (How many Vietnam veterans did/do just that?)

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit is Peta’s prosthetic leg.  As medicine advances, more and more soldiers are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with prosthetic limbs and brain damage, rather than dying on the field.  These soldiers have to learn how to live with a prosthetic.  In a way, Peta’s prosthetic leg is a missed opportunity, since it is rarely discussed in the book.  However, this is Katniss’s story, not Peta’s story.

I should say a word about the names in The Hunger Games trilogy.  The names are constantly critiqued by critics, for being silly.  After all, most of the characters are either named for ancient Romans, natural features, or names associated with their trade.   (After all, the bread baker’s son is named Peta (read Pita).)  It’s intriguing that the names of the book are very different than given names in American culture.  Perhaps that’s not completely surprising.  It is clear that Panem exists hundreds of years after the collapse of the United States.  In addition, Panem is clearly a post-Christian society, and as a result, only two minor characters have names that could be thought of as Christian, ie names of characters in the Bible or names of saints.  (Ten points if you can identify those names!)

One of the most moving parts of the book is the scene in the Capital when the victors, forced back into the arena, must appear again on Caesar’s show.  and the citizens of the Capital begin to show remorse and disgust with the Games.  I was actually unhappy with the decision to put everyone back in the arena, not only because I felt for Katniss, but because I felt as if it was a cop out decision on the part of the writer.  However, I appreciated this decision much more when I saw how the people of the Capital reacted to the decision.  The people, who had become attached to the victors over the years, begin to weep, and cry out for change.  It was striking to see the humanity in the people of the Capital re-emerge after a 74 year slumber, to see them begin to understand that the tributes are people, and that the Hunger Games are wrong.

In addition I appreciated the characterization of Peta in Catching Fire.  Peta is once again portrayed as capable in ways that Katniss is not.  Peta is crafty, good with words, and good with handling a crowd.  He drops a (fake) bombshell that renders the Capital unstable.  It is a wonderful twist as President Snow’s desperate attempt to reassert tyrannical power over the rebellious districts undermines his own control at home.

Catching Fire is very enjoyable because of the world it creates, and the disturbing way it resembles our own.  It shows in a very compelling fashion how a people, long oppressed begin to rise up.  In addition, it shows the problematic reality of violence and its long lasting consequences on survivors.  It also asks teens to think in a way that seems uncommon for teen fiction.  While there are subtle plot devices that most teen books use (Which boy do I like?) the book also takes the reader into a country on the verge of revolution.  Catching Fire is a worthy successor to The Hunger Games.

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