“They call it the plague
A generation of children born with extreme genetic mutations.
They call it a home
But it’s a place of neglect and forced labour.
They call him a Freak
But Dog is just a boy who wants to be treated as normal.
They call them dangerous
They might be right.”
Once in a while, I have a moment of realization that what I am currently reading is not just good, it’s important. It teaches us something about ourselves, and human nature. It puts us inside the minds of people whose minds we don’t necessarily want to understand. It holds up a mirror to our society, and some of us will not like what we see. People will react to it strongly, both positively and negatively. Some people will want to see it banned from schools, because they fear what it has to say.
One of Us by Craig DiLouie is that kind of important.
Set in a run-down alternate Huntsville, GA, One of Us shows us an America where, in addition to racial tensions and a failing economy, something else is horribly amiss. The “Summer of Love” has given rise to a powerful sexually-transmitted disease that has created a generation of horrifically deformed and mutated children. Most are taken from their parents at birth and placed in poorly managed, barely funded orphanages run by degenerates and dirty cops who can’t find work elsewhere.
They are little more than prisons.
The year is 1984, and the first “plague children” are reaching adolescence. Sex education is largely focused on avoiding the virus, and the local “normal” children are dealing with mixed messages from their teachers, parents and authority figures regarding the mutant children and the dangers they pose. Their educators urge them to have empathy, drawing parallels between them and pointing to their similarities rather than their differences. However, their parents and authority figures urge caution and largely prefer segregation, some out of fear, and others from sheer malignant hatred. The situation has led to the uglier side of human nature rising to the surface – there are members of the community who think that the best way to avoid the virus is to pursue only virgins – the younger, the better.
Meanwhile, the plague children are beginning to realize that their hopes for the future will be forever out of reach, just as they are also discovering that they have superpowers. They are shipped out to work on local farms as slave labor, treated as second-class citizens by most of the “normals” they encounter, with moments of kindness here and there. Sally, the farmer’s eldest daughter, is a kind girl who brings the mutant children refreshments as they work. Jake, a local boy, believes strongly that they should be treated as equals and integrated into society, and he campaigns on their behalf.
Dog, our main character (covered in fur and with the head of a dog), keeps hope alive. He believes that in living life well, working hard and showing themselves to be kind and trustworthy, the normals will realize that they are valuable to society. His best friend Brain begs to differ. Brain has been born a genius with a photographic memory. He talks of revolution – dangerous talk.
One of Us is an unflinching and at times, harrowing look at the nature of hatred. How it manifests, how it grows, and how it fizzes over into outright war. It instills a sense of dread from the beginning and doesn’t let up until the inevitable tragedy comes crashing down around everyone’s ears. The “plague children” can be replaced with any oppressed minority and it would ring just as true. It is not a fun read, and it’s not always an easy one, and more than once it hurt my heart. It includes scenes of rape, torture, and violence, and even goes so far as to place us inside the mind of a pedophile and a stalker. Yet the vast majority these scenes are not gratuitous, but a necessary part of the larger narrative. I devoured it in one day. If I had teenagers in my life, I would urge them to read it and have some serious discussions with them about it. There is no indication that this is an ongoing series, and personally I hope it remains a standalone. Not because I don’t want more, but because to continue could diminish its powerful message.
I have few criticisms – some of the peripheral characters are somewhat archetypal, and towards the end there is a scene or two that felt unnecessary, as if DiLouie wasn’t quite sure how to tie up the loose ends. Minor stuff.
It isn’t perfect. But it is important, and it will stay with me for a long time.
My sincere thanks to Nazia at Orbit Books for the ARC of One of Us.
Bingo Squares 2018
- Published in 2018
- Fewer than 2500 GR Ratings