Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien

Summary: Gaia is a sixteen year-old midwife-in-training for Western Sector 3 of Wharfton.  On the night of her first unassisted birth, her parents are arrested and taken to the Enclave, a walled-in community ruled by the Protectorat.  After Gaia's mother passes on a mysterious ribbon through a friend, Gaia is left to interpret its symbols before the Enclave gets hold of it.   As Gaia uncovers more and more secrets, she must decide whether she will continue to support the Enclave’s system of totalitarian government as she always has, or use the information to right societal wrongs.

Dystopian Issues: Dictatorship, Reproductive Slavery, Eugenics
Part of a Series: The first book of the Birthmarked series
Next in Series:  Tortured is considered Birthmarked 1.5, but it's a short story available for free on for Kindle. Prized is the next offical book in the series
Age of Main Character: 16
Number of Pages: 361
Year of Publication: 2011
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

Review:  It begins with a wall.  As soon as a wall is built the focus becomes about who is allowed inside the wall, and who is kept outside.  A wall equals force and control; it is a visible symbol of power and marginalization. 
     I enjoyed O'Brien's book because while she doesn't give a lot of background on why the wall was built and how this society developed, I still found it easy to slip into the world she had created.  Gaia lives in a place where she is a midwife delivering babies.  Some of those babies are allowed to stay with their mothers in the outside community of Wharfton, but the first three she delivers every month must be 'advanced' (handed over) to the Enclave.  It seems that inside the wall there are increasing problems with hemophilia and infertility and the Enclave is trying to remedy these problems by bringing in babies from the outside.
     The Enclave government is totalitarian, but at times not very organized.  One of the ways they keep their power is through lack of information.  When it is discovered that Gaia's mother (also a midwife) had been keeping a list of all the babies that had been advanced, the knowledge is a form of power the Enclave wants, putting Gaia's whole family in danger as the Enclave seeks to get it.
     O'Brien's ideas are clear and intriguing, and while I found the romance between two central characters to be a bit forced, I like the theme of self-discovery and the exploration of adoption.  Do children who have been adopted ever really know who they are if they don't know who their biological parents were?  The Enclave is a society that thrives on forced adoptions but no one seems to consider the impact this has on the adopted children.
     Also, reading about the problems with hemophilia due to inbreeding really interested me.  If the Enclave can breed hemophilia out of their population is that the socially responsible thing to do or is it more important for people to fall in love and sometimes have to deal with the consequences of such an unstructured act?
     Either way, O'Brien keeps me reading, wondering what I think the answers are, what the Enclave will decide and how Gaia's convictions will lead her to act next.  I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Prized.

Real Life Dystopia:  Some parallels between Birthmarked and Nazi Germany are pretty easy to make here.  Hitler and the Protectorat, the Enclave's desire to produce a master race, and the marginalization of people with any kind of abnormality.  Although while in Nazi Germany enclosures like concentration camps were the last place a person wanted to be, in O'Brien's book the Enclave is the desired place to live.

Memorable Quote: "'What will they do once they identify the suppressor gene and find the people who carry it?'  Gaia asked.
    Leon templed his fingers together, and they cast a sharp shadow on the tabletop.  'They're thinking long term.  Once they can identify the suppressor gene, they'll test all the babies outside the wall and take the ones who have it.  They're patient,' he said.
    The dawning horror made Gaia momentarily speechless.  'All of them?'
     'They'll be the most desired, most precious advanced children ever,' he said flatly.  'The mothers of those children will be encouraged to have as many babies as possible, all for advancing.  And when those babies grow up, they'll have thier pick of the elite families to marry into.'"
     - Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien, pg 243
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