Book: The Declaration
Author: Gemma Malley
Age Range: 14 and up
Gemma Malley's The Declaration is a fascinating story. It's about a future world in which longevity drugs have been invented, so that people no longer die of natural causes. In the presence of limited space and resources, however, children have become unnecessary and dangerous. People are pressured to sign "The Declaration", which states that in order to take the longevity drugs, they agree never to have children. Children who are born anyway are called Surpluses. The parents are sent to prison. The children are sent away to virtual slavery, doomed to spend their entire lives making up for the unthinkable crime of being born.
Fifteen-year-old Surplus Anna lives in Grange Hall, an institution in which 500 Surpluses are being raised. The children are starved, beaten, and trained in menial tasks. Anna's best hope is to be assigned a position as a Housekeeper, to be a Valuable Asset to society. She struggles to become the perfect, silent, nearly invisible servant. And she's doing a fair job of it, until a boy named Peter arrives at the Hall. Peter challenges Anna, and puts dangerous ideas into her head. Like the idea that her parents might have loved her, and the even more heretical idea that she might have a right to be alive. From the moment that she first meets Peter, though she doesn't know it at the time, Anna's life will never be the same.
This book felt like a cross between Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children series (in which third children are illegal, and can be killed if they are caught) and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (in which children born for a secret reason are hidden away in institutions). There are also images of slavery (the Surpluses have no rights whatsoever, and are given only a sketchy education, so that they don't get any dangerous ideas) and Nazi-ism (people de-personalize the Surpluses to make it more comfortable to mistreat them). The Declaration explores questions about the rights of people living now compared to the rights of future generations, the suspicion that older people sometimes exhibit towards younger people, and people's responsibility towards the environment.
Anna is an intriguing character. She starts out completely brain-washed by the Grange Hall matron, Mrs. Pincent, and only gradually starts to think for herself. She treats the other children at the Hall harshly, genuinely convinced that they have to learn to subjugate themselves. She trusts no one, and expects nothing. And yet, Gemma Malley makes Anna a vulnerable and primarily sympathetic character. It's a fine line to walk, and I think that she does it successfully. Here's an example, when Anna finds whispered conversations stopping as she enters the room, because she's a Prefect, and not to be trusted by the other children:
"Surpluses weren't supposed to spend time whispering to each other, anyway. They were supposed to take orders, to listen to Legals. Anna was determined to be the best Surplus ever. She'd be so good, it would almost make up for her existing in the first place. But it was still quite lonely having no one to talk to, particularly now, with Surplus Peter making her feel agitated and confused." (Page 46)
Mrs. Pincus is also a highly complex character, deeply wounded, and capable of doing terrible things. Here is a memory that Anna has, of being punished by Mrs. Pincus for the dreadful crime of peeking out at snow from behind a curtained window.
"'The snow is not falling for you,' she'd shouted at her as she pulled Anna to her office by the hair, then set her down on the floor as she searched for her belt. 'How dare you even look at it! How dare you spend one moment of your life looking at something beautiful when you should be working. Nothing good in this world exists for you,' she'd screamed as she gave up the search and used her own hands instead to slap her across the face. 'Know Your Place, Anna. Know Your Place. You are nothing. You deserve nothing. You will never feel snow in your hands or the sun on your skin. You are not wanted on this earth, and the sooner you can accept that, the better for all of us.'" (Page107)
It's painful to read. I gulped down The Declaration book in one sitting, because I couldn't stop until I found out what happened to Anna. However, although I found the story compelling, and the questions that the book raises interesting, I do have a couple of quibbles. Without giving anything away, there's a revelation at the end that felt to me, in the way it was introduced, like a bit of a cheat (though it does make the ending work). And the rhetoric, complete with labels instead of names for different types of people, felt a bit strong in places. Still, quibbles aside, The Declaration is a must-read for fans of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. I would classify it for fourteen and up, because of the violence. I also think that adults will find it intriguing (though Anna's strong voice makes it decidedly YA). This is a chilling book that made me appreciate my freedom, my comfortable surroundings, and the fact that there are children in the world. It's well worth your time.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Publication Date: October 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Becky's Book Reviews, Bookwyrm Chrysalis
See also Gemma Malley's list of Top 10 Dystopian Novels for Teenagers
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.