Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Revolution

I started MOCKINGJAY yesterday, and I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away when I say Katniss finds out rather quickly that rebel life isn’t everything she--or, more precisely, Gale--thought it would be. The rebel leaders aren’t a bunch of squeaky-clean Luke-Skywalker types, and the fabled District 13 imposes almost as many rules as their old friend, the Capitol. This moral ambiguity is what has driven the plot (so far), and even now, more than a hundred pages in, I, like Katniss, still don’t know whose side I’m really on.

I’ve been thinking about revolutions for a while now, since Bob features one of sorts, and the point my brain always seems to circle back to is how much someone’s culture influences his or her opinion on a concept like rebellion. In American film and literature, the rebels in a given story are almost always the good guys. Their leaders are usually dashing and charismatic, and their cause is always just.

And why is that? Because in the history of the United States, the revolutionaries have generally been just that. In fact, this nation owes its very existence to a rebellion.

Now consider a country like Cambodia. I must admit, up until a few years ago, when my brother-in-law went to live there for a couple of years, I knew next to nothing about this Asian nation, but now I know just enough to shudder at the mere mention of Pol Pot. I don’t know what touched off Pol Pot’s revolution beyond the pervasive friction between the better-educated haves and the less-than-educated have-nots (or if an inciting incident even happened), but I do know that it obliterated hundreds of thousands of French-speaking Cambodians and just about everyone else who had any kind of formal education. I also know that, more than thirty years after the fact, Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the repercussions of Pol Pot’s rebellion.

What does a Cambodian think about revolution, then? I have no idea, but I’m willing to bet that word conjures up a starkly different picture for a Cambodian than it does for me. And so it is with all of us. We are all products of our societies, so our society has a strong impact on how we read, how we write, and how we interpret life in general.

What about you? Where are you from, and when you hear a word like revolution, what words or images come to mind?

I’ll start. I’m from Mesquite, Nevada (originally Kaysville, Utah), and when I hear the word revolution, I see smoking ruins; a war council in a Federal-style room, usually with one of those old-fashioned writing desks; and a square-shouldered man on a white horse (who, admittedly, is probably George Washington).


Christauna Asay said...

I agree. Revolution usually bring to mind a positive image. Such brave people fighting against the big government machine. However, I'll admit, in my WIP the revolutionaries are the bad guys. Not sure how that happened.

Ben Spendlove said...

I'm from Smithfield, Utah, and when I hear the word revolution I see smoking ruins, too. What rises from them is uncertain at best. The revolution I wrote about ended ambiguously. The establishment wasn't clearly bad, and overthrowing it left a void for a different oppressor to fill.

The American revolution had far and away the best result, and we're still reaping it. Most nations aren't so blessed.

Erin Edwards said...

Because of a recent trip to France, right now I am mostly thinking about the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, which took place right after the American revolution. For the the French, it was the first of many. If I remember correctly the French are now on their *fifth* republic, each the result of a revolution following one a few years earlier. And I wonder just how it it differed from the American Revolution and why they had this repeated cycle.

If you want a model for a revolution, there is a lot of material to be mined there. :) I'm reading about it from the viewpoint of Napoleon's wife, Josephine, and it is quite intriguing.

e. f. danehy said...

This is such an interesting thought! I'm a born-and-raised New Yorker (born in the suburbs, living in the city now) and I've always thought of Paul Revere's midnight ride when I think of revolutionaries. John Adams's orations and Thomas Jefferson's letters. The "13 colonies" kind of revolution but in a snooty intellectual sense, because my teachers were always emphasizing the writings and the papers and the power of the written word to spread freedom.

But as you say, revolution isn't always so wonderful. There's a cost. I found myself enjoying Collins' take on the theme from the first chapter. Revolution shouldn't be made out to be as glamorous as we Americans seem to imagine it being.

Krista V. said...

Christauna, that image of brave people fighting against the big government machine is a pervasive one in American culture, I think. What we don't often think about is how those brave people can be just as bad as the existing government, or even worse.

Ben, I think you're right - the American Revolution is probably the exception rather than the rule.

Erin, the French provide an intriguing model for revolutions, don't they? :) What is this book you're reading, and is it fiction or nonfiction?

Other Erin, I agree that it's easy to lose sight of the battles amidst the sheer volume of words the American Revolution produced. I don't think they, the writers of those words, lost sight of them, though. I read David McCullough's JOHN ADAMS a few years ago, and it was a thoroughly engrossing read.

Janet Johnson said...

Interesting thoughts. I hail from the DC area, and here, revolutionaries are freedom-fighting citizens just trying to make a living. I see blood, I see carnage, but I see hope for a better tomorrow.

But I bet my friend in France would have a very different vision. :)

Abby Minard said...

What a great post. Actually right now, revolution for me, is standing up for banned books. Going to the board meeting or public hearing and speaking out against banning books.

The controversy with the Wesley Scroggins and his article hit home for me, since I live in the same town as him. My daughter goes to that school district, and I am very upset they have already removed Slaughterhouse 5 and Twenty Boy Summer. Speak has survived so far...

So for me, we could start a revolution in my town and Speak out against book banning and make it known we will not tolerate it.

Thanks for letting me get on my soapbox! Stepping down now...

Jemi Fraser said...

Interesting stuff. I'm Canadian which definitely colours my views on revolution. The word conjures images of the underdog being squashed by governments and people with guns. I think of children forced to become soldiers at ridiculously young ages. I think of famine, lack of clean water and sewage, rampant disease and refugee camps. I see hope and despair, often in equal measure.

Myrna Foster said...

I usually think of The Terror in France. Sure, they needed a revolution; the people were starving, but the revenge the revolutionaries took with Madame Guillotine was appalling and often senseless.

Shallee said...

Very interesting question! I've been thinking a lot about this lately, as my current WIP also features a sort of revolution.

For a long time, I had the typical Americanized revolution ideals in my head, like you mentioned. Then I went to Africa, and came back and studied politics. I realized revolutions and rebellions are messy, convoluted, and only occasionally turn out well. I think that's one thing Suzanne Collins did very well in Mockingjay.

Thanks for this post! It gives me much food for thought...

Krista V. said...

Interesting comment, Janet. I think of revolutionaries, at least in America, as being part of our past, not our present. But Washington, DC, is home to hundreds of much smaller revolutions all the time, isn't it?

Abby, banned books are always a hot topic in the publishing world, especially around this time of year. I think you're right - in the end, the parents should be the ones making those decisions for their kids, not the schools or the government or anyone else.

Jemi, revolution in Africa is a whole other story. I can't even begin to comprehend what everyday life must be like for those people. I read a couple of memoirs written by child soldiers to help me build a better base for one of Bob's characters, and they were absolutely appalling. The chaos is so widespread, so universal. Yeah, I'm sure Africans have a completely different concept of revolution than we do.

Very well put, Myrna. I'm afraid I sounded too lighthearted in my earlier comment about the French Revolution (and the other four or five that have come along since then, as Erin mentioned). I think the French Revolution just goes to show that no matter how noble the cause is, a revolution will only turn into more of the same if placed in the wrong people's hands.

Krista V. said...

Shallee, revolutions and rebellions are messy and convoluted. Very rarely is one side all right and the other all wrong.

lodjohnson said...

I am from Georgia and of course when the word revolution comes into play, we Southerners often think of the Civil War.

The Southerners weren't itchin' for a fight - they just wanted to preserve their way of life (as tainted as it may have been). Yet somehow we managed to preserve our graceful, yet often ridiculed, laxidaisical viewpoint after the last shot was fired.

Revolution doesn't necessary mean change - it only shows that a group is seeking recognition for who they are and what they believe in (however tainted it may be).

Erin Edwards said...

Kirsta - I have read several and started with a couple on Marie Antoinette.

Every time I think I have it figured out who was right and who was wrong a different book gives me a different perspective. Which I think just shows that the question of right and wrong is difficult to answer.

It's frustrating to me that historians, both in the classroom and in books, usually only give one side. But from the the last thing that I read, I think that the French Revolutionaries often had good intentions, but when things got going there were difficult decisions to be made and they sometimes (often) made the wrong choice - sometimes they were overcome with the desire to save their own head. :)

With Josephine I started with THE ROSE OF MARTINIQUE, which is nonfiction. I then picked up THE MANY LIVES AND SORROWS OF JOSEPHINE B. which is fiction, but it is well researched and helped me start to get some of the people straight. Now NAPOLEON AND JOSEPHINE, AN IMPROBABLE MARRIAGE, is adding yet again some different insight. I have struggled with how to state this succinctly, but it is easy to believe in an ideal. Until it requires you to give up a way of life that promises you everything for a way of life that is likely to leave you (and your children) destitute with no hope of ever recovering if you don't make all the right moves. This was what many of the revolutionaries in France seemed to be up against.

Maybe one of the difficulties of the French Revolution is that it was led by people who had everything to lose, even if they succeeded.

Lindsay said...

I'm from small-town Alabama, and revolution brings to mind a much prettier picture than the one in Mockingjay. (Just finished it last night - WOW). My ancestors were not only sons and daughters of the American Revolution, but also proud secessionists in the American Civil War. I still remember how, in elementary school, I wanted a war to start so I could be a rebel. Yeaaaaah.

Krista V. said...

Great point, lodjohnson. Sometimes, revolution is the only way - or the only way the revolutionaries see - to get their point across.

Erin, those books sound fascinating books, especially since I'm always on the lookout for interesting nonfiction (and well-researched historical fiction). Also, your last sentence, "Maybe one of the difficulties of the French Revolution is that it was led by people who had everything to lose, even if they succeeded," is very thought-provoking.

Lindsay, your comment reminded me of something one of my high school English teachers said. She was raised in North Carolina, and she said her history teachers still called it the War of Northern Aggression. Yes, our perception is definitely colored by where we're from and who our people are.