Tuesday, August 7, 2012

High School is Like Prison

Quarantine #1: The Loners
High school is a prison. At least it feels that way when you are there. But what our slightly melodramatic youngsters can't imagine is actually being trapped in your high school, under a quarantine that literally makes your high school into a prison. In Lex Thomas's Quarantine: The Loners, you get to see just how ugly high school can be.

David knew punching Sam, the star of the football team, was going to have repercussions, but he had no idea they would be so long-lasting. In a normal time, he would have had to watch his back and life would have been difficult until he graduated, but when half the school exploded and the rest was put under a mandatory, isolating quarantine, he was left to survive the insane wrath of Sam with no adults to supervise. When a kid infected with an insane virus that kills all adults instantly runs into the high school, there is no other option but to try to contain the disease by bombing the school. Unfortunately, nothing was contained and all the adults died anyway. Now hundreds of kids are left to fend for themselves with no answers, and no way to feed themselves. The military starts dropping food, but as the seniors age, they start to die the same way, by coughing up their own lungs. In order to avoid the inevitable massacre, the military creates the "graduation booth" where kids who have lost the virus from their systems can safely leave the toxic school and rejoin the rest of society. But that means there are a lot of kids stuck in the school who face years before they can leave. And we all know what happens when kids are left to their own devices for years on end... we have all read Lord of the Flies. It doesn't end well.

After a year in the school, gangs have formed so kids can have some fighting chance of staying alive. Without a gang like Varsity, Pretty Ones, Nerds, Freaks, or Sluts, you can pretty much count on starving and looking over your shoulder with every move you make. Thanks to David's impulsive decision to punch Sam for fooling around with David's girlfriend, he is a wanted and shunned man, and his brother Will is guilty by association. They make do, cleaning laundry to trade since they have no chance of actually getting food in the military drops, but Will resents his lot in life. As Scraps (gang-less kids), they barely get by. But when David tries to protect a newly shunned Pretty One from being raped by a Varsity, he accidentally kills the guy and becomes more than just shunned... now he is a wanted man. When he is saved by a bunch of Scraps and Will, the Scraps have an interesting proposition. They want to form their own gang. David finally agrees when the Scraps come together an stand up to Sam for the next drop, but just because they have a gang, it doesn't mean they are safe. Because no one is safe in Quarantine.

So, this was quite the story. Two man writing team Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies (pen name: Lex Thomas) created a realistic, terrifying, brutal place that is exactly what you would expect. There is violence and rape and starvation and insanity and even forced "prostitution" where the Pretty Ones are forced to date Varsity in order to get their protection and food and resources. This book is ugly because this situation is ugly. A world where bullies and beasts are strongest is just survival of the fittest. And everyone else is forced to survive on the fringes. But we all know a revolution is imminent when people are scared and starving. Starving people will do anything to eat, even stand up to someone who has all the power when they are essentially powerless as one individual. But together, they can show the powers that be that there is power in numbers. This story felt so real and accurate it was incredibly disturbing. I found myself cringing with each descriptive sentence and action scene. Not because it was gratuitous. Because it was exactly what would happen if this wasn't fiction.

There is an amazing depiction of the relationship between brothers, David and Will, that will ring true to any sibling relationship. They hate each other, but love one another, they want to kill each other, but won't let anyone hurt the other, they forgive but don't forget, and most of all, they compete. It was a really well executed relationship for Lex Thomas, and it will ring true for anyone with siblings. But the other characters were just as dynamic and well executed. The boy, Smudge, who preferred being a Scrap, and Dorothy, who abandoned the Scraps out of fear when they faced Sam, and even Hilary, the leader of the Pretty Ones who did what she had to in order to stay alive, but who could barely live with herself anymore. They were executed brilliantly.

Since the story is so disturbing, it would probably be best for older young adults, maybe grades 10 and up. But this would be a perfect story for any reluctant reader, boys in particular. Like I said, the story is mature, so be aware of who you give it to. I can't imagine anyone with delicate sensibilities will make it more than 10 pages in this story. My one biggest critique was the difficulty keeping up with the ever-changing point of view. It switched so often it felt a little schizophrenic at times. I never really got used to it. But otherwise, you will enjoy this story if you can stomach the terrifying reality of it all! And you will walk down the halls of your school a little differently once you are finished!

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