Jessie Lamb is not Katniss Everdeen. Her heroism is the kind for which there is no fawning media coverage, nor any rewards, nor cheering fans, because most of us would consider it horrifying and unthinkable. Yet those people would be the same who freely apply the word "hero" to boys who put on uniforms, go off to war, and come back in caskets. If they are heroes for losing their lives in the taking of others, why shouldn't a girl who loses hers in the giving of another be an even greater hero? Why is their choice noble, while hers is the rash and naive decision of someone who foolishly expects to change the world?
No one knows exactly who is responsible for spreading the virus that causes Maternal Death Syndrome. But what is certain is that everyone — men and women — has been infected by it, even though it only triggers in women, and only at the moment they become pregnant. At that point, the victim is hit by an especially brutal case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It does not end well. While the disease itself claims only women, its eventual effect will of course be human extinction. Unless scientists can come up with something.
Jessie and her parents live in the Greater Manchester area. She's 16, and her life is quintessentially that of the typical teen. Jane Rogers has not consciously created a young-adult apocalyptic novel of the sort flooding the market at present, and as a result, she's managed to reach past the clichés of such stories into realms of emotional truth that, it simply must be said, the Suzanne Collinses of the world cannot reach. This novel — sporting a premise reminiscent of P.D. James' The Children of Men and Frank Herbert's The White Plague — is quietly triumphant, delicate in its understanding of courage. Its future (or alternate present, to be more precise) isn't one in which youth are the victims. We all are. But it may well be one in which they are the saviors, if the salvation weren't every bit as horrible as the apocalypse.
Jessie is closer to her father than her mother, who often seems unengaged in her immediate family, absorbed only by the plight of her sister, Jessie's aunt Mandy, who is plunging toward emotional collapse. Her dad works as a researcher in a lab that has come up with one possible solution allowing the birth of live babies. The mothers, inescapably, will die, but they are given a drug that slows the full ravaging effects of the disease, and put into a medically induced coma while carrying their pregnancy to term. The fetus is not affected by the CJD. It hardly seems like the best deal. The mothers, in a grim perversion of romanticism, are called "Sleeping Beauties."
At first Jessie feels detached from all that's going on around her. Then she hears of close friends who've lost a loved one. It all seems to her as if it's just another way the stupid adults have left a screwed up, broken world for the next generation to inherit. She and her friends get on with life, some decide to get militant. They join a youth group full of people who are all talk and little walk, very passionate about change, but as is so often the case, without sensible solutions or a plan to achieve them. She attends meetings of a radicalized feminist group who see the Sleeping Beauty program as the vilest sort of devaluing of women, while her aunt Mandy gravitates towards a new apocalyptic religious movement. Government labs like her father's are besieged by animal rights rioters. Meanwhile, formerly happy neighborhoods feel a little more empty.
The moment Jessie makes her decision, it is a moment of perfect clarity for her. It's not a grandiose act of heroism to her, simply something she sees as a necessity. Without new babies, the human race will die out. It's that simple. The emotional fallout of confronting her parents, her new boyfriend, the rest of her circle, is not inconsiderable. With the casual self-obsession that allows parents of teenagers not to take the actions and decisions of their kids all that seriously, Jessie's mom and dad at first take time to absorb what she tells them. Then her father briefly persuades her to wait until, at least, the initial trials with the first volunteer mothers prove successful. With a new vaccine against the MDS virus now ready for injection into frozen embryos, it's now possible to create a future generation of babies completely virus-free, though the fate of the mothers is unchanged. But the window for successful pregnancy is very young and very brief indeed.
Jessie is so brave and full of life, and it's difficult to understand why anyone like her would choose this. Some of the other girls who have volunteered are, by their own admission, alone, unhappy, raised in abuse, with no future prospects of their own. But Jessie isn't acting out any youth angst, and has nothing but regret for the pain she's causing her family even as they try to take desperate measures to stop her. She has made her choice. Rogers' story is an often sad one, but not a bleak or depressing one. Popular literature trades so casually in the notion of heroes, yet so rarely gives us real ones. I admire Jessie, though I'm certain even I would want to stop her. But could I? Should I? She knows what she wants to do and is approaching it with open eyes. If you truly believe in the sanctity of choice, could we really tell her she's wrong, to let other girls be the sacrifice instead, as if sacrifices that don't affect you personally are okay? Every one of them is someone's daughter.