reviewed by Dan Bloom
Polly and the One and Only World (Green Writers Press) is a dystopian YA cli-fi novel that tackles some pretty heavy themes, and author Don Bredes has pulled it off without a hitch. The story he tells is stormy, dark, and deep, but it ends with a note of hope as well, as befits a YA novel. It's a story for our times, bound for a wide readership, but it's going to jangle some nerves along the way. Given that America is still a very Christian nation, and that Bredes's book casts Christian fundamentalism in a pretty ugly frame, I asked the well-respected Vermont author if he expects some backlash--and even perhaps nationwide book-banning--due to pressure from the legions of Christian fundamentalists and climate denialists (sometimes the same people) who are bound to take offense.
''Sure,” he told me, “I expect some criticism, especially from fundamentalists. I’m not really worried about it. Back in 1977, my first novel, Hard Feelings, was quite popular--it was named a Best Book of the Year by the American Library Association, but, because it portrays adolescent sexuality, it was banned in several communities. That kind of controversy only attracts more readers.”
I asked Don how he might respond if his new novel runs into protests and threats of book-banning from religious groups. He said, “Well, first, the novel is a fantasy. It’s a cautionary fantasy for young people. It presents a grim vision of some trends we all can see today in our culture and the wider world. Will America become a repressive theocracy? Probably not. But the possibility is undeniably there, and there are many people in this country who would love to see it happen. Beyond that, I have to say I lament the indoctrination of children into systems of irrational belief. I would invite young readers to consider Polly’s perspective--that gods are not real, they’re just emblems, and that the stories in the holy books are poetic tales, some rich, some silly.
They’re myths. Their original purpose as guides to conduct or antidotes to our fears, like death, are no longer helpful or useful. Adherence to myths about ourselves can keep us from seeing life for the singular, fleeting wonder it is. It seems a terrible thing for people to spend their lives behaving and thinking in strict accordance with old, worn stories about supernatural beings and places. To the extent that so many millions of people do live their lives that way, these are still the Dark Ages. Polly would say it’s much better to believe only in what, on good evidence, we can be reasonably sure is true.
“The other issue is world itself--the environment that sustains us. Our human ‘conquest’ of nature has already begun to cause severe disruption in the nurturing balance the world’s climate has enjoyed for thousands of years. Further unchecked disruption will bring increasingly intense storms, permanent drought, coastal flooding, the possible collapse of the Gulf Stream conveyor, and the end of industrial agriculture and trade. The potential for social strife, for wars over shrinking resources and widening inequality, as well as the potential for terrorist violence a thousand times more devastating than 9/11, are also worth pondering right now. Somehow, human beings will have to come to terms, and soon, with the ominous, visible conditions that will shape human civilization.
“Polly and the book's other heroes are witches. Their natural recourse to transformative magick, which we all know is not real, is juxtaposed in the novel to rituals like exorcism and belief in angels and demons, which we all should know are not real. Some readers won’t exactly approve of that sort of perspective."
I thoroughly enjoyed Polly and the One and Only World. But then again, I'm a deep green climate activist and a longtime untheist. The rest of you better get ready. When this YA novel hits the streets, all hell is going to break loose among the Christian fundamentalists who populate this evolving nation in pockets north, south, east, and west. Polly is going to be a wake-up call for teenagers everywhere, but along the way it's going to meet some strong, mean resistance. Don Bredes says he’s ready for the challenge.