Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dreamer's Island: A Review

Gretchen Hummel's Dreamer's Island is a post-apocalyptic novel set on the island of what used to be San Francisco in 2060 after a pandemic has wiped out much of the worlds population.  One side effect of the pandemic is that it causes terrifying delirium dream sequences.  The islanders  have some skill in treating the critically ill, and thus the name of the novel.

Ms. Hummel is a resident of Davidson, North Carolina.  Davidson is a small college town just north of Charlotte in the Piedmont (Appalachian Foothills) Region of North Carolina.  In a Charlotte Observer interview (which is how I found out about the novel) she notes:

Writer Publishes Post-Apocalyptic Novel
Amy Reiss, Charlotte Observer (Lake Norman News), 25 January 2012
She is inspired not just by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Margaret Atwood but by her background in psychiatric nursing. Her first novel centered on schizophrenia, which her brother suffers with. She said the process of writing the book was cathartic. "I think a lot of people's first book has a lot of autobiographical elements." She's also written a collection of short stories.

Read more here:

As noted above, the primary cause of the collapse was the delirium-dream causing pandemic of forty years prior.  The plague is stated as having been "released by the melting of the ice caps." [?]  A very odd notion, that none-the-less allows global warming to be shoehorned into a pandemic laced novel. Those who survive the high fever, often lose their memories, and additionally are continually bothered by bad dreams.  The people also seem to pick up odd skills (French, metal working, et cetera) from some sort of collective Jungian collective unconscious.  The Jungian shared subconscious aspect  reminds me a bit of what  Paul Bryan noted in Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction,  "The most common side effect of radiation is not blindness, hemophilia, or limblessness; it is the ability to read minds": radiation = telepathy; dream plague = Jungian collective unconscious.

As part of the dream therapy, the author throws in a mix of new age - Wiccan folklore.  She spends a lot of time discussing Pan as Satan. The authoress is of the opinion that the early Christians suppressed Pan, by equating him with the Devil.  While it is true that  Satan is often depicted as having horns, and being devil-like fairly early on.  The early Christians tended to not have a great interest in the Greek and Roman Gods.  Early Christian (Saint Paul for instance) would view Pan as a non-entity:
Paul within 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
...As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one."  Indeed though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth - as in fact there are many gods, and many  lords - yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist , and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
She sites Saint Augustine for "killing Pan" around 300 A.D.  But Pan was actually "killed" by the Pagans at a time before Jesus began his ministries, although some later tellings (also here) have it at the time of Christs Death.  The prominence today  of Pan as Satan, seems to have come more from Victorians who were moved by the pastoralism of the Romance movement.  Thus their revival of a pastoral pagan God.  The revival of Pan was a literary one, and to some degree a neo-Pagan one.  The pagan belief system that the early to middle-ages Western European Christians had a hard time with were the Germanic traditions.  It was Victorian fops who brought back Pan.

The Dream Islanders are surrounded by dour neo-Calvinist pilgrim types.  They wear black and frown a lot- when they are not stealing children:  because we all know that the God fearing people are associated with stealing children.  The Islanders adopt a relatively open,  Pan-based neo-paganism. With the dour Pilgrim types often visiting, and occasionally occupying forcefully occupying the island, this causes some problems.

The dream plague kills people, but it can also help them with their artistic abilities.  So the Islanders like to keep some of it around in case their muse grows cold.  Of course this is said to be done in a controlled environment, but there seems to be absolutely no security, and people in their delirium can wander around and infect others.  So if the mainlanders are a bunch of sour-pusses, the islanders are a bit idiotic. 

Blare, the heroine generally does a pretty good job of making a hash out of just about everything.  If there is a delicate moment to be negotiated, she'll run a freight train through it.  If there is a secret to be kept, she'll inadvertently spill the beans.  When she find out about bad guys, she is too busy to tell anyone right away:  she will get to it later.  As Blair seems to be some sort of alter-ego of the authoress, it is hard to know what to make of her doings.  Her incompetence is almost menacing. 
The book is intended to be relatively pleasant fare as post-apocalyptic books go.  Some mystery, and suspense, but also with a positive note.  In other words it is trying to be a bit of a cosy.  Brave people, facing adversity to make a better world.  Personally I find their world of death dreaming artists to be a little creepy.  It is as if Jim Morrison, rather than Pan/Satan, was their patron.

Wiccan will likely be just fine with it, most readers are probably going to find it odd, and then a bit tiresome.

Axel, the SShakespeare quoting parrot, is entertaining.  He goes well beyond the 300 word-unit (pdf) count that parrots are supposed to max out at, but it is just as well because he steals most of his scenes.   I find tarot cards interesting, and there is a little bit of discussion about them.  But as typical, there is more discussion about "should we be discussing them" than discussion about them.

There is some mystery, a fair amount of it in the form of that old standby-cheat where characters act on knowledge that has not been conveyed to the audience:  Less a mystery, than a lack of information.   The pacing is very slow, with lots of back and forth discussions on matters that are not terribly relevant to the story line.  The final storyline is something like one big amnesiac-awakening scene.

In net, if many post-apocalyptic novels, play out like some sort of wild west adventure, this one plays out like a trip to your local renaissance fair.   A bit of a diversion, but you don't leave the place feeling like you just stepped back into 16th century England, or in this case stepped foreword to an Island of Dreams.

For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being high):

Realism?  O.k.  Pan, or some elves did not actually show up.  The parrot didn't pick any locks, or shot anyone with a gun.  So it won't get a one.  Instead it will get a 2.  Almost nothing about this story has any sense of reality to it outside of some backstage Renaissance Fair bickering.  The storyline is pretty much the wish fulfillment of the authors.  She wants a world like this to exist, and pandemic apocalypses are a good way to wipe the world clean and start over again.

Readability?  As I alluded to above, there is a tendency to drag out the action.  Relatively minor moments take extended periods of time to resolve.  On the plus side, the use of language is good.  The extensive use of dream sequences, and the methods used to disguise the mystery make it a bit difficult to follow at times.  I am going to put it right at the middle at a five.

Gretchen Hummel


Kelly Robinson said...

This one isn't on my master list. Thanks for pointing it out.

russell1200 said...

I have a google alert (look in advance searchs under "more") for ~apocalyptic book review

That is how I found this one.

The circa sign picks up items that are close but no cigar.

It is very good at picking up books that are off the beaten track. Sometimes very off the beaten track.