Author: Emmy Laybourne
Genre: Apocalypse, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: June 2012
Paperback: 294 Pages
Your mother hollers that you’re going to miss the bus. She can see it coming down the street. You don’t stop and hug her and tell her you love her. You don’t thank her for being a good, kind, patient mother. Of course not—you launch yourself down the stairs and make a run for the corner.
Only, if it’s the last time you’ll ever see your mother, you sort of start to wish you’d stopped and did those things. Maybe even missed the bus.
But the bus was barreling down our street, so I ran.
Fourteen kids. One superstore. A million things that go wrong.
In Emmy Laybourne’s action-packed debut novel, six high school kids (some popular, some not), two eighth graders (one a tech genius), and six little kids trapped together in a chain superstore build a refuge for themselves inside. While outside, a series of escalating disasters, beginning with a monster hailstorm and ending with a chemical weapons spill, seems to be tearing the world—as they know it—apart.
Stand alone or series: Book one in a series
How did I get this book: ARC from the publisher
Why did I read this book: I am a sucker for apocalypse novels and have been in the mood for a good ‘end of the world as we know it’ book. Monument 14 looked like it could deliver. (And, on a completely superficial note, I like the cover.)
The day begins like any other. Dean hears his mother calling out that his bus has arrived to take him to school, and he rushes out the door to make sure he gets on in time. The bus ride is uneventful until impossible large hailstones start falling from the sky, destroying hapless cars and causing the bus to crash in a spectacular wreck. Luckily for Dean and his fellow bus-riding high schoolers, they’re picked up and saved by the elementary and middle school bus, and find shelter from the bludgeoning hailstones in a Greenway superstore (the fictional equivalent of a Super Target/Walmart/Costco). Left to fend for themselves while the only surviving adult, the bus driving teacher Mrs. Wooly, goes to find medical help for the battered students, the group awaits for the authorities and their parents in the store.
When Mrs. Wooly doesn’t return, however, things start to get ugly. The Network (think internet) is inexplicably, impossibly down. The group – an assortment of six high schoolers, two eighth graders, and six children – is finally able to catch a television signal that explains how a massive volcanic eruption triggered a tsunami that wiped out the east coast of the United States. Further environmental catastrophe soon followed – including the terrifying hailstorm and supercell storms stretching from the kids’ location in the Colorado Rockies down to the Southwestern US.
While the kids try to soak up this information and figure out their next move, a massive, unprecedented earthquake hits Colorado – and shortly after, the kids hear the most terrifying news to date. The earthquake decimated NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), causing the breach and leak of top secret biochemical weapons. Panicked and terrified, the children sequester themselves to the store, sealing off exposure to the contaminated air outside. And within the confines of the superstore, they wait. They fight. They struggle to survive.
So. Monument 14. Where do I begin?
Let’s start with the good: Emmy Laybourne’s debut novel is an undeniable page-turner. I love the underlying cause of the apocalypse in this novel – which, unlike most contemporary apocalyptic books, does not directly blame the demise of the planet on human action. Instead, Monument 14 is frighteningly plausible.
The book is written competently, narrated in the first person by the bookish junior Dean, who is refreshingly neither a hero nor a planner, neither a jock nor a genius. Dean is, simply, Dean – fallible, flawed, but ultimately a relatable character. I also enjoyed seeing how the kids within Greenway organize themselves, figure out how to ration power and resources, how to delegate tasks, and the struggles they face both internally and externally, amongst themselves, and later amongst outsiders.
This is where the praise ends, however, as some MAJOR un-ignorable problems crop up.
WARNING: This next section of the review contains some SPOILERS. If you do not wish to be spoiled, skip ahead to the “END SPOILER” tag.
My main beef with Monument 14 concerns the alarming, deeply disturbing portrayal of the three main female characters in the novel. Allow me to elucidate where these three characters are concerned:
Astrid – is the first main female character we meet in Monument 14. Our narrator carries a huge, burning torch for Astrid, who is (as her not-so-unique name would suggest) blonde, athletic, beautiful, and generally kickass as a camp counselor and potential leader for the kids. She also is romantically involved with Jake, the dumb asshole jock (of course there is one of these). Essentially, Astrid is our archetypal Hot Strong Female Character. At one point in the book, she is exposed to and affected by the chemical compounds and reacts violently (as a side effect of her type O blood) and she nearly strangles a kid to death. At this point, Astrid decides to completely withdraw from the other kids in the book and lives in hiding, sequestered from the others in the store, and she refuses to come out or be a part of the group. BUT, she does come out occasionally to talk – and at one point to sleep with – Jake, in secret. (There’s a particularly creepy scene where Dean vouyeristically watches the hookup in progress.)
Josie – is initially in shock for the first half of the novel (while Astrid is being our Strong Female Counterpoint), but when Astrid disappears, she awakens from her coma of shock and starts being Mother to all the kids. This is not exaggeration – at one point, our narrator compares the two girls saying that Astrid is a kickass camp counselor, while Josie is a sixteen year old middle aged mom. THIS is Josie’s archetype. She is the one that sings songs and tells stories to the children; she is also the one that suggests the group have a ceremony for the dead, and hold elections to stop the boys from fighting.
Sahalia – is thirteen years old and her archetype is “Lolita Wannabe” – or, in the less generous thoughts of our narrator, she’s objectified and reduced to being “hot” and a girl that dresses provocatively and throws herself at older men. Resentful of being lumped in with the elementary school kids (because she’s in 8th grade), Sahalia becomes increasingly provocative over the course of the novel – at one point when the kids are washing eachothers’ hair because they have lice, she shows up in booty shorts and a white tshirt with no bra, and puts on a wet tee show for the sixteen-eighteen year old boys. This is addressed in the book by the narrator (who is turned on but looks away – the other boys of course don’t), and by Josie who thinks Sahalia is acting like a child trying to get attention (which is true). Later in the book, Sahalia dresses up in the revealing halloween outfits over lingerie, and tries to get the older boys interested in her again (Josie, ever the mother, breaks it up).
BUT the coup de gras is when ADULTS come into the store and one of them – a Latino gardener/mechanic, of course (one of two characters of color in this very homogeneous cast) – is beloved by all the kids and spends a little too much private time with Sahalia. Cut to a few chapters later when she is discovered in his sleeping bag, crying in a thong.
OH YEAH and later? At the end of the book? ASTRID IS PREGNANT and decides that she must stay in the store while the other kids go out to get rescue because…well, she’s too scared to go (blaming the chemical compounds outside). Our narrator decides to STAY WITH HER because of this. (EVEN THOUGH HE KNOWS HIS PARENTS ARE ALIVE and waiting for him at the evac site. ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME.)
So we have the grand tally of female characters: the “slutty” little girl is raped (though of course there’s questioning around what happened to Sahalia because of her behavior), the Strong Female Figure is made powerless because she can’t deal with the trauma of attacking a kid and then she is also made PREGNANT and too scared to go outside to seek rescue.
The Good Mothering character is the only one that gets away and a chance at rescue (you know, because she’s the chaste one that acts like the mother to the children and is the only one that doesn’t put out or god forbid ask for it in this book).
I know that the manner in which I’m framing these different characters is very dramatic and overt – in reality, the way these characters are presented in the book is far more…subtle. It’s a testament to Ms. Laybourne’s skill that I was able to read the full book cover to cover and want to know what happens to these characters at first blush. But then, I started to really think about the subtext of the novel and what kind of message is being conveyed, particularly where these characters are concerned.
Needless to say, the subtext is incredibly disturbing.
Compounding these problems of character are some other problematic overtones: everyone in the store – except for one small Latino boy named Ulysses – is white (and of course, our villainous pedophile/rapist is also Latino). Everyone is Christian and believes in the same God. These aren’t bad things, or even unbelievable things – but the subtext, combined with the portrayal of female characters, exacerbates an already iffy context.
My experience with the book is certainly not going to be indicative of anyone else’s, and perhaps others will interpret the characters – particularly the portrayal of the female characters – in a different, more favorable, way. For me, I had a visceral negative reaction to the subtextual message offered by Monument 14. I might stick around to see how the next book plays out, since this novel ends on something of a cliffhanger with no resolution, and I did appreciate the chilling novelty of the chemical agent affecting different people in different ways based on blood type. But ultimately, can I recommend this book? No. I certainly encourage others to read it and form their own opinions – I’d be interested to hear what you think, if you’ve read the book – but, unfortunately, Monument 14 did not do it for me.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
As I raced down the driveway I heard my mom yell for my brother, Alex. His bus was coming down Park Trail Drive, right behind mine. His bus came at 7:09 on the dot. Mine was supposed to come at 6:57 but was almost always late, as if the driver agreed it wasn’t fair to pick me up before 7:00.
Alex ran out behind me and our feet pounded the sidewalk in a dual sneaker-slap rhythm.
“Don’t forget,” he called. “We’re going to the Salvation Army after school.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
My bus driver laid on the horn.
Sometimes we went over to rummage for old electronics after school. I used to drive him before the gas shortage. But now we took our bikes.
I used to drive him to school, too. But since the shortage everyone in our school, everyone, even the seniors, took the bus. It was the law, actually.
I vaulted up the bus steps.
Behind me I heard Mrs. Wooly, who has been driving the elementary–middle school bus since forever, thank Alex sarcastically for gracing them with his presence.
Mrs. Wooly, she was an institution in our town. A grizzled, wiry-haired, ashtray-scented, tough-talking institution. Notorious and totally devoted to bus driving, which you can’t say about everyone.
On the other hand, the driver of my bus, the high school bus, was morbidly obese and entirely forgettable. Mr. Reed. The only thing he was known for was that he drank his morning coffee out of an old jelly jar.
Even though it was early in the route, Jake Simonsen, football hero and all-around champion of the popular, was already holding court in the back. Jake had moved to our school from Texas a year ago. He was a real big shot back in Texas, where football is king, and upon transfer to our school had retained and perhaps even increased his stature.
“I’m telling y’all—concessions!” Jake said. “At my old high school a bunch of girls sold pop and cookies and these baked potatoes they used to cook on a grill. Every game. They made, like, a million dollars.”
“A million dollars?” Astrid said.
Astrid Heyman, champion diver on the swim team, scornful goddess, girl of my dreams.
“Even if I could make a million dollars, I wouldn’t give up playing my own sport to be a booster for the football team,” she said.
Jake flashed her one of his golden smiles.
“Not a booster, baby, an entrepreneur!”
Astrid punched Jake on the arm.
“Ow!” he complained, grinning. “God, you’re strong. You should box.”
“I have four younger brothers,” she answered. “I do.”
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 4 – Bad, but not without some merit
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