Today, in honor of Teen Read Week, I review the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. As it turns out, teen readers across the country recently chose Catching Fire as their favorite book of 2010. I will not spoil any important plot twists in this Catching Fire summary and review. For a review of the first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games, click here.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins: Quick Review
I highly recommend Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. First, the book is bursting with subjective appeal. The plot has the many exciting twists we’ve come to expect from The Hunger Games, the deepening characters make us care about what happens next, and the tastefully developed love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale is enough to pique the interest of any teen beginning to think about love. Second, Collins’s thoughtful examination of ethical issues—particularly those related to war, and moral psychology—stimulates productive thought and emotion, giving the book developmental value. My one caution is that the book, like The Hunger Games, is quite violent (though, I think, in a productive and justified way), and so sensitive readers should be forewarned. Keep reading for an in-depth review.
Catching Fire: Summary
In The Hunger Games, teenagers Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark emerged as victors of the 74th Hunger Games—a compulsory, nationally broadcast, gladiator-style fight to the death against 22 other teens. However, the fact that both of them emerged as victors is an unprecedented embarrassment to the Capitol, the oppressive regime that rules the nation of Panem and stages the annual Hunger Games. Katniss outsmarted the Capitol by feigning love for Peeta, and—when only the two of them were left alive in the arena—threatening to eat a handful of poisonous berries simultaneously with Peeta, such that both of them would die (think Romeo and Juliet). Unable to stomach no Hunger Games victor, the Capital momentarily buckled and allowed both to win.
Picking up the story in Catching Fire, Katniss’s victory has changed her life. She now lives in a mansion in the “Victor’s Village” of District 12, and has more money than she will ever need: her days of poverty and hunger are over. However, despite her new wealth, all is not well. As a victor, Katniss must now be involved with the violent Hunger Games (which she would rather forget) indefinitely. Most immediately, she must participate in a Victory Tour, visiting the Districts and families of the other Hunger Games contestants—“tributes”—who were killed in the arena, some of them at her hand. Then, she, Peeta, and Haymitch Abernathy—the alcoholic victor of the 50th Hunger Games, who mentored Katniss and Peeta during their time in the arena—will be required to act as mentors to the District 12 tributes at the 75th Hunger Games. That round of the Games has been deemed a “Quarter Quell,” i.e., an especially brutal version of the Games to commemorate its 75th anniversary.
In addition to the distasteful requirement that Katniss continue to be involved in the Hunger Games, she, her family, and her friends are in personal danger. Apparently Katniss’s rebellious act with the berries has stirred the possibility of insurrection in the Districts: if a 16-year-old girl can defy the Capitol and survive, why not entire Districts? President Snow—the cruel dictator of Panem—has personally threatened Katniss that unless she can pacify the Districts on the Victory Tour, she and those close to her will be in danger. The only way for her to obey this order is to continue feigning love for Peeta on the Victory Tour, and thereby to convince the restless Districts that the berries represented desperate love for Peeta and not rebellion. This project is, of course, excruciating since it is sure to further alienate her long-time hunting partner, friend, and would-be suitor Gale Hawthorne.
Subjective Appeal: Breathless Plot, Deep Characters, Love Triangle
Just like The Hunger Games, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins has tremendous subjective appeal. The gripping story it tells is central to this appeal. First, the plot is every bit as compelling as The Hunger Games. Although my heart was not pounding quite as fiercely as it was while reading the first book—perhaps because I’ve acclimatized somewhat to Collins’s hard-hitting style—the plot of Catching Fire still kept me on the edge of my seat. The blind-side plot twists and action-packed drama we came to expect from the first book are, of course, in full effect. However, the new personal tone to the conflict between Katniss and the Capitol makes the story even more fraught, her peril more acute.
Moreover, we care about how the plot unfolds because Collins continues to develop her characters masterfully. The history and psychology of each of them—Cinna (Katniss’s Capitoline stylist), Haymitch, Peeta, Gale, and of course Katniss—are given further depth and nuance as the story progresses, particularly in the first half of the book. For example, as we see effects of the arena’s trauma surfacing in Katniss’s life—nightmares, anger, recklessness, etc.—we gain a new sympathetic picture of the alcoholic Haymitch. Whereas in much of The Hunger Games Haymitch and his drinking problem were comic relief (e.g., drunkenly pitching headfirst off the Hunger Games stage on national television), in Catching Fire we understand his drinking as a semi-rational response to the trauma he experienced in the arena.
Collins also develops the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, adding to the book’s subjective appeal. Katniss’s relational stakes with Gale are increased (I’ll say no more!), Peeta’s selfless love for Katniss continues unabated, and Katniss’s tortured confusion about her own romantic inclinations reaches new heights. Mix in Katniss’s felt obligation to publicly demonstrate love for Peeta—after all, the welfare of the entire nation may hang on it—and you get an excruciating relational cocktail that tastefully engages teens beginning to think about love.
Developmental Value: Ethics of War, Edifying Characters
Like The Hunger Games, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins is bound to get teen readers thinking about important issues, and has considerable developmental value for that reason. For example, the book raises a host of intertwined ethical questions that are both interesting and productive to wrestle with. As in The Hunger Games, the question of how the value of personal survival stacks up against values like loyalty and justice is front and center. Similarly, the problem of the Capitol’s stifling oppression throws the value of freedom into stark relief. One new twist on the freedom theme is Katniss’s grief over the loss even of her romantic freedom—one of the few freedoms permitted to citizens of the Districts—due to the complicated situation with Peeta and Gale. In this vein, Katniss also raises the question of whether it is good to have a family in the oppressive world created by the Capitol: why have children, she wonders, with the threat of the arena looming over them?
In connection with the Capitol’s oppression, the book also raises ethical questions about war. Specifically, implicit questions about whether war can be just begin to emerge in this book, with the hints and whispers of rebellion in the Districts. Should Katniss try to appease the Capitol and safeguard her loved ones, or would that be to abdicate the responsibility to confront evil? Would confronting the Capitol in full-scale resistance be justified, given the cost in innocent lives such a plan would entail? These are just some of the productive ethical questions that Catching Fire brings to the fore.
Adding to the book’s developmental value, Katniss’s character continues to be morally edifying in Catching Fire. She wrestles with the ethical questions I’ve noted in a way that is honest, realistic, and that exhibits integrity. For example, at one point Katniss ruthlessly evaluates her motives in surviving the arena, focusing her attention on why she took that handful of berries:
“If I held them out to save Peeta because I knew I would be shunned if I came back without him, then I am despicable. If I held them out because I loved him, I am still self-centered, although forgivable. But if I held them out to defy the Capitol, I am someone of worth. The trouble is, I don’t know exactly what was going on inside me at that moment.” (p. 118)
Katniss’s blunt and indeterminate assessment of her motives exemplifies what I take to be realism about human motives: we often do not know what is driving us, particularly in difficult situations. The realistic complexity of Katniss’s wrestling with ethical questions allows the reader to identify with her, and thereby learn from her.
Finally, the book is empowering for young women, which I take to be a developmentally valuable feature. However, readers should be warned that the book is quite violent. My assessment of these issues (empowerment and violence) is the same as it was for The Hunger Games, so I refer you to my review of The Hunger Games for more detail.
In sum, I highly recommend Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. The gripping plot, the masterfully developed characters, and the excruciating love story all hold a reader’s attention. Collins’s thoughtful examination of ethical issues—particularly those related to war, and moral psychology—also stimulates developmentally valuable thought and emotion. Thus, I encourage you to find Catching Fire in your local library, or to support our work by purchasing it through the links in this post, or the Children’s Books and Reviews Online Bookstore.
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