Thursday, June 22, 2017

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

About a year and a half ago a friend got me to watch the Dreamworks movie Home on Netflix. Based on the trailers for this movie, it was not something I would normally choose to watch. Obviously there are people who enjoy that sort of humor but I'm just not one of them. But silly jokes aside, I noticed a critique of colonialism and racism sort of barely touched upon within the movie. Which I thought was rather subtle for a movie with jokes about aliens drinking out of the toilet. Doing a modicum of research I found out the movie was based on a book, The True Meaning of Smekday and the description I got off the internet made it sound intriguing. So when I got an opportunity to borrow this book from the library I decided it was worth taking a listen.

The result is that I am impressed and disappointed with The True
Meaning of Smekday
. The book has glimmers of real intelligence and looking at some serious issues which can be difficult to talk about. But I also feel like there's just a lot of squandered potential with the story as well when it falls into the fairly well-worn tread of alien invasion codified by War of the Worlds and has been used up to Independence Day and beyond.

The story is written from the perspective of Gratuity Tucci, an eleven year old girl living in Pennsylvania with her mom. On Christmas Eve, Gratuity's mom is kidnapped by the alien Boov as part of the run-ups to their full-blown invasion on Christmas Day, which they rename Smekday in honor of their Captain Smek. The Boov then begin pushing humans around and, at least in the United States, decide all humans should be sent to live in Florida as a ''human preserve''. Instead of taking the Boov-provided rockets, Gratuity decides to drive down to Florida by herself with her cat, Pig. Along the way she runs into an errant Boov who goes by the name J-Lo, and they soon team up, somewhat reluctantly.

Now, there are a lot of things I really like about this book. Gratuity is an excellent character, who manages to sound like an incredibly smart, independent, and yet to me fairly believable adolescent girl. She is absolutely fantastic and I loved following her around the United States as she tried to find her mom and figure out what the Boov invasion means for her. I also appreciated Bahni Turpin's narration, especially her voices for Boov characters such as J-Lo. In the book it definitely felt more like the Boov didn't fully understand English syntax and grammar so their language was a little stilted and accented, opposed to in the movie where it seemed to be a silly thing the Boov did because they were silly. So I appreciated that immensely. And overall, I think this book was very well written.

On the downside, as I mentioned I feel like there was a lot of squandered potential in this book. There are hints at talking about colonialism, with the Boov easily conquering earth and telling the humans that they're an inferior species to the Boov. The Boov also decide humans can never be integrated into society so humans are forced onto human preserves which, in theory, the Boov are giving to the humans for perpetuity but when the Boov realize they want that land, the humans are forced off of it and moved once again. On top of this, there's a Native American character Frank, aka Chief Shouting Bear, who makes it a hobby to shout at white people for stealing his land. This feels like it would be a great opportunity in a book, which seems to be geared towards children, to talk about complex issues such as colonialism and relations between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.

I say this because colonialism and Indian relations is a difficult subject, if only because of the incredible embarrassment most white people feel at the atrocities committed by other white people against native peoples in the Americas. So it can be hard for adults to explain to children why this sort of thing happened and how it still affects American Indians today. By creating a fictional narrative, in which aliens invade Earth and treat humans in general much like how white people treated indigenous populations across the globe, we can create a more comfortable parallel to help people at least get children introduced to the ideas about colonialism and how it's a destructive force.

Unfortunately, the book kind of veers into the well-worn path of an alien invasion when yet another alien species shows up to take Earth away from both the humans and the Boov. So I'm left with the feeling that an opportunity to talk about a pretty serious subject like colonialism gets lost in a far more cookie-cutter plot.

I also feel like there were some important questions raised towards the end of the book which didn't really get satisfactory answers and which I felt were fairly important to the story. For example how is it that Lucy, Gratuity's mother, goes from being a barely responsible adult in the beginning of the book to being a key figure in the ad hoc government in the human preserve? Was Gratuity just an unreliable narrator? Did the events of the Boov invasion bring deep change to Lucy? Cosmic radiation? Also who is Dan Landry? Where does he come from? Why does he have so much power in the preserve? We know a little bit of what he's trying to accomplish but I feel like he could have used just the teensiest bit fleshing out.

Overall I don't think it's a bad book. I actually think it's pretty good and I enjoyed quite a few parts of it. I just feel like there was an opportunity to create something which Rex just barely, barely missed and could have achieved with a little more fleshing out. But I think it's definitely worth a look.

- Kalpar

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