Review: Parched by Melanie Crowder

Parched by Melanie Crowder (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

Dystopian is a word you’ll hear thrown around fairly frequently since the popularity of The Hunger Games.  Though apparently the word is still not recognized by spell check. Dystopian societies are an imagined society or world, either futuristic or simply set against a different non-historical background where the conditions of living are bad to an extreme.  Some of these dystopian stories are a bit sneaky . . . giving the appearance of a utopia or a well-off society until the reader gets to see the horror underneath the appearance.  Many of the ones written today are futuristic societies  with teen protagonists.  Many have love triangles and romantic subplots.

Which is one of several reasons why this slim fiction work about a dystopian future stands out so starkly.  There’s no beating around the bush here, the story makes no bones about the brutal world in which our protagonists are trying to survive.  Our characters are children rather than young adults, and there is no romantic plot arc.  Add in the fact that this takes place in Africa and you have a very rare type of story indeed.

This is a future world where water is scarce.  Cities have become battle grounds for gangs that fight for control of the remaining water.  People die from starvation, thirst and lack of medicines or technology.  Everyone who can has abandoned these brutal, dying cities for someplace better.  Those who are left spend each day trying to survive.  Sarel is one of the lucky ones.  She and her family live by a secret oasis that provides just enough water for them and their dogs and a tiny garden.  Until now.  Sarel has just watched her parents be killed by vicious thugs looking to claim that oasis and now is hiding out with her dogs, trying to find a way to go on.  But the water is running out, drop by drop, and soon she will have to decide what to do. Musa is a boy with a gift for finding water–a dowser.  Sold out to a gang, he is kept as a chained slave to the gang’s demands . . . until he sees a chance to escape.   On the run from the city and those who used him, he runs straight into Sarel and her dogs.  Sarel knows how to survive on the unforgiving landscape, but it is Musa who holds the key to finding water.  These two survivors have come through so much, but can they–along with Sarel’s dogs–find what they seek so desperately?

Clocking in at one hundred and fifty four pages, this is a remarkably short book even for a middle grade novel.  This is a tightly woven story with no danger of running overboard on description or plot The text is straight forward, describing actions and reactions. Readers are given three different points of view in shifting chapters.  Sarel, Musa and Nandi, Sarel’s dog.  Everything is very immediate, visceral and very bleak.  It’s been placed in the  young adult section of my local library despite the younger characters based on how violent and bleak it is.  To be honest, I disagree with the placement.  This is a very strong futuristic fiction work that may well get lost in the young adult shelves.  It deserves to be read and discussed.  Despite the violence and brutality of the work, one of the key aspects that kept me reading was that the characters are survivors.  They are kids thrown into a terrible situation, yet they do not give up.  They depend upon each other.  This is a powerful message to impart to readers.  There is hope here in capability, determination and cooperation. Make no mistake, this fiction packs a punch, and won’t be appropriate for readers who aren’t prepared for this kind of dystopian landscape.

It’s also exciting to see African protagonists featured in a speculative fiction novel for kids.  There aren’t all that many of them  and very few as well done as this.  Sarel and Musa are vivid characters in their own right, though the author gives us only sparing glimpses of their past.  Readers are thrown into the situation from the opening sentences of the story, and ride along with the characters to the breathless end.   I did feel that the ending was a little too abrupt, even for as short a story as this was.   The ending is also not a straight forward “happy” ending,  which again might be the reason some libraries will place it in young adult.

While this is certainly a futuristic story, based on the idea of climate change and how it might impact entire parts of society, it is not exactly pure science fiction.  Musa’s ability to dowse for water is clearly something more than simple guesswork or skill–there’s a rather supernatural element to his abilities.  This blend of science fiction and fantasy works, I think. Some readers may be less willing to suspend disbelief in Musa’s ability, but the author does a good job of making the gift of dowsing seem like a realistic thing  that weaves in with the story and both children’s connection to the land around them.

This is a debut novel for the author, Melanie Crowder.  It’s an impressive one. I’d love see what other stories this author may have in mind for the future.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication Date: January 2013

ISBN13:    9780547976518

Recommended for grades 5 and up.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on November 29, 2013, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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