Borders Book Review: The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch Asks the Tough Questions

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I get a ton of books to review all the time, and sometimes it’s more than I can handle. I decided to call in the troops in the form of my friends, who also happen to be former employees of the recently closed Borders Books and Music. This first review is from Wendy R., reading the YA dystopian book The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch.

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Lemme just say, that I am a big fan of the dystopian/ecotopian story.  Societal fail by oppression and/or poverty due to political and/or ecological disasters.  Humanity reduced to depths not ever thought possible by common thinking.  This is what I like.  I like it in books and I LOVE it in movies.  This book fits right in.

Picture this – Oil shortages.  Society fearful and unsure.  The world is like so much tinder waiting for a match to be struck.  That match turns out to be some American students on walkabout in China getting caught where they shouldn’t have been and are mistaken for spies.  And the fireball just got bigger rolling down the hill of time.  Students are killed, America retaliates, China releases “P-11”, a super strain of influenza, killing 2/3rds of the population.   There are not enough people to run things like electric or water companies, the media, factories, hospitals, military, government…. This was the Collapse.

In the wake of the Collapse, there were still people surviving and this is where the story really takes place.  Stephen Quinn, his dad and his marine grandfather make their way up and down the country salvaging and selling what they can to be able to survive.  At the same time Stephen and his family have to avoid the “bullies” of this world who take things from others, including lives, either by murder or slaving.  Grandfather dies just before the book starts, but he is still an ever-present character in the book by how he influences the decisions Stephen makes.  Dad is severely injured in chapter 2, leaving an unprepared Stephen in charge of the diminishing family.   While Stephen and his dad are at their lowest, from stage left comes a group from Settler’s Landing, a small settlement formed by a hodge-podge group of people wanting a way to return to some pre-Collapse normalcy.  Most of them want to help create a better life for all they can, but some still turn toward fear to make their choices.

Stephen meets Jenny Tan, an American girl with Chinese in her ancestry, who is willful, artistic and very much filled with angst about how her life is going.  She writes something to Stephen that he is floored by, something he thought no one else could relate to.  Because of this ease of understanding, he throws himself in with her almost without thought, including into accidental trouble.  A prank they play goes bad, lighting the tinder of fear in the settlement, mirroring the incident with the American students in China that caused the war to begin with.  The real meat of the story happens from here on out, how Stephen handles himself in this new kind of chaos and how he learns what it means to be at home.

I really liked the story-line and how Hirsch moves the story along, everything threading along like a graduated string of story pearls to the main attraction.  The issues Stephen faces are complex and appropriately reflect the society he lives in.   The language he uses with Stephen as the narrator seem to be simplistic and backwards in the beginning also appropriately reflecting Stephen’s sheltered background.  Stephen is born first generation into this shattered culture, so he has no idea of things like school, electricity or running water.  Towards the end of the book, his language becomes a little more sophisticated as he becomes more sure of what he wants to make of himself in this new environment at Settler’s Landing.

This book is meant for ages 12 and up, so as an adult, I felt the book was lacking some depth, but it is COMPLETELY appropriate for the preteen/tweener/young teen.  It asks some challenging questions through the story of Stephen about morality, ethics and choices.  Character strengths and weaknesses abound, but with compassion, it shows how to make a bad situation better regardless of what a person has material wise.  I think that it also demonstrates effectively how insidious and destructive fear can be.  After all, as FDR once said, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”.

The Eleventh Plague was published September 1st, 2011.

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Wendy R. is an awesome massage therapist and yoga instructor in addition to being a mom, bibliophile, and owner of adorable rats.

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