U.S.S.A.: Book One by Tom DeHaven (Avon Books: $2.95)
It's 1996 and 17-year-old Eddie Ludlow, living in a typical small town in Ohio, begins noticing strange things about the community in which he's grown up. It began when President Patrick Cudahy was removed from office by his Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Constitution was suspended, a new government, U.S.S.A. (United Secure States of America), was declared in power and--horror of horrors!--news and rock 'n' roll were removed from the radio and replaced by "official bulletins and Beethoven sonatas."
It's not just that there are strange little electronic sparrows hovering in the branches, photographing any activities that might threaten the new regime. It's also that Eddie's mother, a writer of liberal books, has found her work on the New National Culture's "X-list. And one of Eddie's favorite teachers, probing, honest Mr. Kantrowitz, is mysteriously replaced one day and later discovered a mere shell of a man, beaten up, muttering, "Just be careful. The both of you. . . . This won't last forever."
"U.S.S.A." is the first in a series aimed at 9- to 17-year-old boys. Unfortunately, a child of 2 could tell the "good guys" from the "bad guys" in this simplistic plot. Most young adult readers like reading about kids older than themselves, however it's hard to imagine anyone much older than 9 enjoying the slick, comic book style in which "U.S.S.A." is written.
Heart in Right Place
In one way, "U.S.S.A." has its heart in the right place. Yes, indeed, many believe repression is once again creeping over America: Books are being banned, many intelligent people watch the evening news with a sense of disbelief and discomfort. What is objectionable in "U.S.S.A" is not simply the writing style nor even the rip-off of Orwell's "1984" and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."
What is disturbing is that the series itself embodies much of the same dogmatism, oppression and prejudice it purportedly seeks to attack. One sexist cliche fully realized in the plot is that, just as girls get their thrills from being kissed by handsome hunks, so boys get theirs from watching buildings blow up and being heroes in the macho, birdbrained style of Rambo movies.
History shows, however, that series books don't have to be trite in order to succeed. Fifty-six years ago, Nancy Drew showed girls in active roles, solving mysteries even adults were too befuddled to figure out. In "U.S.S.A." we are back in the land where women are either moms or girlfriends. They hide in terror, waiting for men to solve societal problems or save their lives.
"Patriotism is popular these days but at the same time this series is more thoughtful," says Dan Weiss, who helped package "U.S.S.A." for Avon Books. "I think our series is considerably more highbrow, and we are hoping to get across an important message, a traditional, patriotic message without being foolishly, violently patriotic. We have to be a little bit more intellectual, although I hate to use that word because I don't want to turn off the readers."
Somewhere out there, though, I believe there are young readers--yes, even as young as 9 and certainly as old as 17--who would be interested in thinking about the meaning of freedom and patriotism and are not afraid of the word "intellectual."
Better Treatment of Themes
Such readers would find a better treatment of these themes, however, in the novels of Robert Cormier, which explore the evil in society by probing with quiet and devastating care into its origins. In Cormier's "The Chocolate War," there is no military takeover, no buildings going up in flames. There is only a small boys school where civil rights are eroded not by generals but by fellow students.
Another young adult novel that is concerned with freedom, the rights of young people, the extent to which they can be manipulated and terrorized by the adult world is "The Grounding of Group Six" by Julian Thompson, also published by Avon. Let's look to individual writers, writing out of their hearts and souls, for literary nourishment, rather than to packagers like those who have produced "U.S.S.A."