Katherine O’Connor’s For All Mankind shares the air with Cory Doctorow’s Melancholia. The author of dystopian survival books is best known for his dystopian science fiction (about child trafficking, surveillance and genocide). The tone of his new novel, however, might seem to some – readers of Women Who Kill – an older readers. O’Connor’s novel documents a generation growing up in the shadow of the Second World War, growing up amid the most ardent attacks on children ever attempted by the government.
The protagonist, Nadine, is fifteen and lives at the edge of the Iron Range. Her brother’s left-leaning views make him a kind of target for the racists, and Nadine tries to shield her family from it. She’s born into the Communist movement, but goes to school and falls in love with a non-communist boy from the city. When violence seems certain, Nadine’s decision to stay with her family and turn to the ballet could save her life.
For All Mankind is a time machine that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. The author’s style is a mix of emotional clarity and shocking detachment; behind the scenes, betrayal, brutality and madness dot this story. The tug of class conflict, the threat of death, the forces of ignorance and propaganda are omnipresent in this book. The same tendencies that propel the action are all there, however. Against the bleak backdrop of the second World War, Nadine is a perfect example of the real meaning of youth.
All these issues are best known through contemporary history: opposition to the war; the rise of communism; the demonization of young people. Where To Sit In This Feeling has an echo of Nazi youth pamphlets and Frederick Douglass’s tracts from “The Boston Race” in particular.
The protagonist in all these stories is the orphaned child, and Nadine has a sort of innocence almost equivalent to Pollyanna’s. The sense of innocence is never necessarily misplaced, as many readers might be quick to criticize this book. But it is a joy to read about a girl in a world where you do not recognize the world. And the more time the characters spend alone – and the more the reader learns about themselves – the more they seem to find beauty and joy.
The vastness of the sky glitters with stars; the trees still have leaves, and blackberries and bear berries grow, all the while seeming to hear the sounds of war. When Nadine is sent on a mission, she is the only one allowed to go where nobody else goes; she journeys through wilderness and city, through fights, suffering and love, until she ends up in camp.
Katherine O’Connor’s For All Mankind, To understand why this book is so amazing, don’t immediately read it. Give yourself a little time. First you will want to know where this story is going. And eventually you will be transported into a place and time that makes your head spin.