Mau, the protagonist in Nation by Terry Pratchett, has to deal with a tragedy of unimaginable proportions: everyone that he has ever known has died.
Mau lives on an island in thePelagicOcean(think of island chains in the Pacific) and is on a different island as the story opens. His task was to use an axe and his knowledge to create a boat and sail home, thus proving that he is ready to be considered a man. On his return trip to his island village, he encounters a giant wave that sweeps his boat ashore and ravages his homeland, as well as the surrounding islands. As Mau recovers, he tasks himself with sending all of the bodies of friends, family, and neighbors to the bottom of the ocean where their souls can be reborn as dolphins. It is during this grisly business that he realizes he does not see a future for himself.
Enter Ermintrude: an adolescent Caucasian girl and the only survivor of her ship being tossed onto Mau’s island when the wave rolled in. Ermintrude had been brought up in high society in her homeland and her father is a governor on another island, so she has led a pampered 19th century life. Faced with surviving alone, she introduces herself to Mau – first by trying to shoot him, then by feeding him. Though the two share very little in common and can barely communicate with each other, Mau decides that Ermintrude is the reason he will go on living because he wants no one else to die on his watch. Soon, survivors from other islands come trickling in and both protagonists put it on their shoulders to keep them all alive, whether that is through making food available or preparing for the ever looming threat of the cannibalistic Raiders that live in the area. Mau is never able to undergo the official ceremony for becoming a man, but the man he becomes is stronger and more courageous than he could have ever expected.
I did not really know what to expect from this book before reading it. When I did pick it up, I was immediately drawn in through Mau’s ordeal and his subsequent struggle with not only survival but also with his beliefs. The story contains a thread throughout that carries Mau’s anger with the Gods, which he denounces belief in but continues to blame for what is taking place. When questioned about his faith and the reasons behind such tragedy caused by the Gods, he responds: “I don’t know the answers, but a few days ago I didn’t know there were questions.” That statement really shows part of the growth that he makes during the course of the story, going from worrying about what everyone thinks to being a selfless leader and someone who wants to understand his place on the planet.
This book immediately reminded me of other stories of survival, like Hatchet, The Cay, and Touching Spirit Bear. All of these books show characters having to survive against what nature throws their way and growing exponentially due to what they must endure.
As I read the book, I wanted to know more about tsunamis so I looked for further information. One site that I used for background with this was Wonderopolis (http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-tsunami/). The page dedicated to these natural occurrences was easy to read and would appeal to students. (This website in general is a good one for getting students interested in exploring nonfiction more deeply because of the intriguing questions posed on a daily basis)
To see the power of a tsunami, look at the following two pictures from NASA, the top one taken after the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004 and the bottom one taken before.
Mau wished there had been a warning other than the animals escaping right before the wave, so this made me wonder about how the tsunami warning system in the Pacific currently works for helping people survive. I searched and found a short video clip that gives the basics of this system: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psxquPsreb0
For teachers who work with earth processes and may want to help students better understand waves, the National Geographic site contains a lesson plan for grades 3-5 about why there are differences in wave heights:
I recommend Nation to students in the middle grades, especially ones who are willing to take their time due to the extensive figurative language and the flashbacks that are woven into the story. Both of these aspects can be difficult for students who do not pause to think about what is going on in the plot, and I can see readers getting confused in certain parts if they take events or descriptions literally. The book reads like historical fiction but would actually be considered science fiction. Though this book would seem to mostly appeal to boys due to the main character and the aspect of survival, I could really see girls liking it as well; this is especially true if they relate to the strong character of Ermintrude who grows from worrying about proper cooking and wearing at least 4 layers of clothing to delivering babies, dealing with murderers, and performing surgery. Overall, this is a strong coming-of-age novel that makes me want to delve into Pratchett’s other works.