Of course, we’re aware of the rest of the tale: she did, and it was, and a number of people heralded the idea of YA dystopian lit as though it was both the greatest thing since sliced bread and a breathtakingly brand-new concept in writing.
Which, as we should all know, it wasn’t. YA dystopian lit was around before it even had such a label. Back in the Dark Ages when I was a kid (look at the price tag on the book’s cover, friends!), it was just lumped into the ghetto of the children’s section of the library (kind of an ‘abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here’ section for us precocious types). Now, in my last post, I talked about one example of dystopian YA: The White Mountains trilogy by John Christopher… but it brought to mind another story of his, a slim stand-alone volume also in YA dystopia: The Guardians, published in 1970. ‘Nother damned good story of his that hasn’t had the lasting fame it deserved.
13-year-old Rob Randall lives with his widowed electrician father in a Conurb, one of the vast future cities segregated from the countryside, or County as it’s known. When Rob’s dad dies in a suspicious accident, Rob is packed off to a grim, gritty boarding school, where senior students haze and bully the younger with impunity while indifferent schoolmasters look the other way. Unlike many future denizens, Rob loves to read (the illiterati will inherit the earth, apparently), enjoying heroic classics; the Three Musketeers’ D’Artagnan, in particular, inspires him. Having found some letters written by his late mother indicating she was originally from the County, Rob decides to defy social convention and escape there. Which he does, tunnelling under the wall separating Conurb from County. It’s one of those plans-that-really-aren’t-plans, borne of desperation and with no attention to nitty-gritty details such as how one is supposed to get life’s necessities, but Rob manages to accomplish the feat, albeit injuring himself in the process.
Fortunately, before his plight becomes too grim, he’s found by Mike Gifford, another boy his own age. Mike is the son of a wealthy Gentry family living in the County, and he takes Rob under his wing, smuggling him food and clothing at a remote hideout he’s found. This arrangement doesn’t last long before Mike’s mother, a highly organized, sharp-tongued woman, discovers Rob at the hideout. However, instead of turning Rob in to the authorities, she agrees to pretend he’s her nephew, come to study at one of the County’s tony private schools. Rob integrates into the Gifford family, taking on the persona of one of the Gentry.
This is an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, and fully aware, Rob is quite content to let the good times roll. Unfortunately, his presence awakens a streak of social conscience in Mike, who contrasts his comfortable County life with Rob’s previous hardscrabble Conurb one. Mike starts attending meetings hosted by idealistic senior students who feel revolution is necessary to end societal stagnation and horrendous inequality --- ignored by the vast majority of people. (Gentlemen of the world, unite!)
Mike joins the revolution as it takes place, but Rob doesn’t: as I said, he well knows which side his bread is buttered on. The uprising fails, though, because, as one of the Guardians tells Rob, things aren’t quite as sloppily managed as they appear in this society. Who are the Guardians? Why, the secret shadowy group really pulling society’s strings (some nice little conspiracy theory stuff before it became fashionable). Turns out they’ve known Rob’s real identity all along, but were magnanimously fine with letting things play out. After the uprising, they’ve contacted Rob to see if he knows anything about Mike’s whereabouts --- he does, but isn’t about to say so --- and they offer Rob a cushy little post in the Guardians. Dazed once again by his incredibly good fortune, he accepts.
However… (plot spoiler) Rob’s conscience starts to prick him: he knows all about the inequality and stagnation of his society --- from both ends --- realizing his dad was, in all likelihood, involved in rebellion, too, leading to his death. Shortly thereafter, Rob decides to join Mike and the other surviving revolutionaries and seek to bring about change, the tale ending on this somewhat inconclusive note. (Although, as Orson Welles, said, ‘if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’)
So that was YA dystopian social commentary back in the Dark Ages. It certainly made an impression on me --- though little megalomaniacal me would’ve been sorely tempted to take the offer made to Rob. But it was a great story: the writing was terse and without a lot of flowery verbiage, the plot rolled along at a rollicking pace --- it had to, clocking in at what I estimate was no more than 57,000 words --- and as I said, it contained interesting underlying political/social commentary. It’s no 1984, but I think Orwell himself would have approved of its message.
And of course, unlike Winston Smith --- or the girl with the funny name --- Rob’s tale ends on a much more hopeful note, which is all to the good: no point in rubbing young readers’ noses in the foul-smelling manure of life any earlier than absolutely necessary.
Plenty of time for that later. Sigh.