Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon might be my favorite book of 2012, alongside Libba Bray’s The Diviners and Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up. I also came across a copy by surprise at this year’s NCTE conference in Las Vegas, where Candlewick Press had a few ARCs on hand. I have seen the book is out in Chapters in Canada, where it’s striking and chilling cover art on display. Gardner previously wrote I, Coriander, a novel that earned both popular and critical success when it was published in 2005. In addition to her writing, Garnder is perhaps best known for her work with raising awareness about dyslexia, which she herself has. Her protagonist in Maggot Moon, Standish Treadwell, is also dyslexic, and his mind works differently from those “train-track thinkers” that fill up the rest of the book. Gardner details the way he processes information, emphasizing the fact that he can deftly pick out words that are spoken, focusing on sound because he has more difficultly with reading the way words are spelled. When Standish looks at the blackboard at his school, for example, he says, “I mean, I sat at the very back of the class – the blackboard could have been in another country. The words were just circus horses dancing up and down. At least, they never stayed still long enough for me to work out what they were saying.”
Standish lives in an alternate reality set in the 1950s, where he lives in the undesirable Zone 7 with his Gramps, which is under strict control of the Motherland. Gardner utilizes a back and forth narrative that doesn’t stick to linear time; instead, she jumps back and forth to cover different periods of Standish’s life in Zone 7. These include the time he lived with his parents, when he moved in with his Gramps, when Hector and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lush moved in, and when Standish and his Gramps were on their own again. All of this leads up to a startling conclusion to the story that is detailed step-by-step, as Standish attempts to put in motion a story about a hero who defeats a giant that he remembers from childhood.
Gardner creates a bleak and grey world that is equal parts The Book Thief, A Clockwork Orange, and 1984. A reading of Maggot Moon alongside any of these novels would emphasize the dystopian, historical, alternative, and grim realities of each. In Zone 7, school is an institution that breeds a certain kind of conformity and fear, and Standish will substitute the word “sheep” for his classmates as they go along with authority figures throughout the novel. The terrifying Mr. Gunnell stands out in this novel, a character who is so appalling that he leaps through the pages at times to arrest the reader in place as he/she encounters an event. Standish describes an incident with his teacher at the beginning of the novel, a description and occasion that set a precedent for his later appearances:
Frick-fracking hell! I should have seen that coming. Mr. Gunnell’s cane made my eyes smart, hit me so hard on the back of my hand that it left a calling card. Two thin, red weals. Mr. Gunnell wasn’t tall but his muscles were made out of old army tanks with well-oiled army-tank arms. He wore a toupee that had a life of its own, battling to stay stuck on the top of his sweaty, shiny head.
Standish’s relationships with the people around him are the most affecting in this novel. His Gramps, for example, took him in when his parents were disappeared, or were killed, something Standish likens to falling down a hole. Standish says of him, “…Gramps was the only person that still pulled at the gravity in me.” When Hector’s family moves into Zone 7, Standish and his Gramps go over with a bowl of raspberries stolen from a field behind the wall, and while they are there, Standish’s Gramps takes a gun and starts shooting the rats in the house as a part of a nuanced “welcome to the neighborhood”: “Numbers mattered to Gramps. Seven dead rats was something the king of rats would respect. Shoot one rat and all his relatives will come looking for you; shoot seven and they understand you mean business.”
This 1950s alternate universe breeds propaganda, and a mission to the moon is on everybody’s minds, and TVs, as the Motherland attempts to secure its power globally. Large moments in this novel are rendered small and everyday in order to emphasize the absurdity of the totality of power in the Motherland. When Standish walks home from school, his Gramps says,
“They said there had been some trouble at school.”
“Yes. Mr. Gunnell killed Little Eric Owen, and I’ve been expelled.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. That squeeze said everything. It said, thank God you are all right.
There are too many layers, levels, and threads running through this novel to talk about here, and most of the enjoyment comes from unraveling them from beginning to end. Standish’s imagination, creativity, and way of viewing the world make this narrative work, and his ability to still believe in change in this stagnant society. Because, as Standish says,
What would happen if we sat here dead still, did nothing? Would time leave us alone, pass us by?
Bring down the curtain.
Bring up the credits.