Tuesday, July 14, 2009

REVIEW: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Ness, P.  (2008).  The Knife of Never Letting Go.  Cambridge, MA:  Candlewick Press.


I think the best way to introduce the first book in a new YA science-fiction series (that came out in paperback today) is to give the opening quote:

“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.  About anything.
“Need a poo, Todd.”
“Shut up, Manchee.”
“Poo.  Poo, Todd” (p. 3).

Hahahahahaha.  Well, it got me.

Todd (the human Manchee the dog is informing of his bodily needs) is the last boy in Prentisstown, the only remaining settlement after the war.  The last child born (in similar fashion to The Children of Men), he awaits his 13th birthday when he becomes a man and can do ‘man’ stuff with the rest of the surviving town members.

But the fun of  The Knife of Never Letting Go doesn't stop there.  The survivors hear ‘Noise,’ the thoughts of all the men near by, all the animals too.  There’s no escaping the noise.  No turning it down.   The Noise was transmitted by enemies, the ‘Spacks,’ in the forms of germs before Todd was even born.
Turns out, constantly hearing everyone’s thoughts about everything and you can cause people to lose their sense of self, sanity and any sense of privacy.  Sucky.
Oh, and all the women are dead.  More sucky.

Todd enjoys escaping the town and the many voices within it to get apples from the nearby swamp.  While on one such trip, he hears something very strange.  No Noise.  Which is impossible.  From there things get complicated and Todd is forced on a journey with a Noise-less stranger and his dog by his side.  He learns much of what he has always been told is false and that he has far to go and many trials to face to find safety and truth.

I could say more, but I don’t want to give anything away.

This book takes on some serious issues and includes a few disturbing images.  Although Todd is twelve during the events of this book, I would not recommend this book for children that young.  This is one intense young adult novel.  It contains a lot of tension and that said tension will keep students turning the pages.

This book considers many issues about society and may provoke some strong reactions from students.  One of those emotions may be frustration.  Several times throughout the novel, Todd learns something that is not revealed to the reader for a couple hundred more pages.  While I could have let this slide once, it got old by the third or fourth time it happened.

Plus on a slightly spoilerish note, there’s a character who won’t die.  At all.  Ever.  Said character was also annoying.  End  spoilerish talk.

As is the norm these days, this book kicks off a series:  Chaos Walking.  (Although, I firmly believe chaos would run from time to time)

Activities to do with the book:

If a student doesn’t already love science fiction, he or she may initially have trouble engaging with this book.  To help compensate, a teacher could emphasize the small moments of humor or Todd’s relationship with his dog.

A teacher could start a conversation about how present technology is similar to ‘Noise’ in that some people are always ‘connected,’ seeing the random thoughts of others.  (In case you didn’t notice, I’m talking about Twitter tweets or Facebook status updates).

A teacher could also emphasize the parallels between historical colonization its connection to religious sects and persecution and westward expansion with some of the content of the book (p. 188 would be a good place to start looking for quotes to pull out).

This is also a good book to examine for the way gender, history, truth, hope and time are constructed.  A great recommendation to students who like reading about distopias.

Favorite Quotes:

“…the swamp is the only place anywhere near Prentisstown where you can have half a break from all the Noise that men spill outta theirselves, all their clamor and clatter that never lets up, even when they sleep, men and the thoughts they don’t know they think even when everyone can hear.  Men and their Noise.  I don’t know how they do it, how they stand each other.
Men are Noisy creachers” (pp. 4-5).

“[Manchee]’s barking round the tree and the squirrel’s skittering back and forth on the tree trunk, taunting him.  Come on, whirler dog, says its Noise.  Come on, come get, come on, come get.  Whirler, Whirler, Whirler.
“Squirrel, Todd!  Squirrel!”
Goddam, animals are stupid” (p. 5).

“I was born into all that, all that mess, the over-crowded swamp and the over-crowded sematary and the not-crowded-enough town, so I don’t remember nothing, don’t remember a world without Noise.  My pa died of sickness before I was born and then my ma died, of course, no suprises there.  Ben and Cillian took me in, raised me.  Ben says my ma was the last of the women but everyone says that about everyone’s ma.  Ben may not be lying, he believe it’s true, but who knows?” (p. 9).

“But the swamp don’t mind.  How could it?  It’s all just life, going over itself, returning and cycling and eating itself to grow.  I mean, it’s not that it’s not Noisy here.  Sure it is, there’s no escaping Noise, not nowhere at all, but it’s quieter than the town.  The loud is a different kind of loud because swamp loud is just curiosity, creachers figuring out who you are and if yer a threat.  Whereas the town knows all about you already and wants to know more and wants to beat you with what it knows till how can you have any of yerself left at all?” (pp. 10-11).

“It’s weird, it is, out there, hiding somewhere, in the trees or somewhere outta sight, a spot where yer ears and yer mind are telling you there’s no Noise.  It’s like a shape you can’t see except by how everything else around it is touching it.  Like water in the shape of a cup, but with no cup.  It’s a hole and everything that falls into it stops being Noise, stops being anything, just stops altogether.  It’s not like the quiet of the swamp, which is never quiet obviously, just less Noisy.  But this, this is a shape, a shape of nothing, a hole where all Noise stops.
Which is impossible” (p. 13).

“You might as well crumple up the world I know and throw it away” (p. 271).

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