Written by Tracy Lawson
At a recent talk, I cited The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) as the first YA dystopian book, but at the time I hadn’t read The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson. First published in 1975, it has been in the curricula in elementary and middle schools for years, and many adults of my generation cite this book as their first taste of the dystopian genre.
A book about post-apocalyptic Chicago might first bring to mind the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, but The Girl Who Owned a City might best be compared thematically to Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I don’t say this lightly–Atlas Shrugged is one of the heavy hitters of the genre, but consider the situation in this children’s book:
A great plague has swept the country, killing everyone over the age of twelve. Without public utilities, services or adult supervision, children band together in family groups for protection, and must forage and steal in order to get the food and supplies they need to survive.
Though it doesn’t fit my stated definition of a dystopia as a twisted version of perfection, it’s an excellent example of post-apocalyptic science fiction. Lisa, the ten year-old protagonist, makes some interesting observations about human nature as she struggles to survive and defend her home and the other children in her suburban Chicago neighborhood against marauding pre-pubescent gangs. In doing so, she becomes aware of her desire for liberty in a way that makes this a very timeless, and timely, read.
In one scene, Lisa discusses a group of children who’ve been adopted by her friend Jill. The children whine and bicker over their few communal toys, and Jill is constantly admonishing them to share. Lisa thinks the children will be happier if they are given jobs, and the opportunity to earn new toys that will belong to them, and only them. Out of earshot of the children, Lisa says, “I’ve been watching your children for days, Jill. Just watching and thinking about them. They do too much sharing and it isn’t working at all. They have nothing of their own—no real duties, no real way of helping. It’s nice to share things if you want to, but it’s stupid to force people to share or be nice. These are things people have to do on their own. Otherwise it’s no good.”
Jill argued that the children are frightened. They’ve lost their parents and their sense of the world. They need coddling, not jobs.
Lisa replied, “I don’t think they’ll ever be happy if you do everything for them. They need to work and be proud of themselves. They need to be able to say to themselves, “I worked hard and did a good job and earned my toy.”
The narrative goes on to say, ‘Lisa wanted to say something about how she had lost her own fear by solving problems and staying busy. It seemed to her that fear was what you felt when you waited for something bad to happen, and fun was what you had when you figured out a way to make something good happen.’
Despite Lisa’s attempts to create a neighborhood militia to protect the children on her street from the Chidester gang, and her idea to learn to drive a car so she could go to a grocery warehouse for food and other supplies, the gangs stage multiple attacks. She despairs until she notices a school building which has a wall around it, like a fortress. She decides to move everyone from her neighborhood into Glenbard and make it into a walled city. Everyone is enthusiastic about the plan, but after they move in and organize the school according to Lisa’s vision, some of the children begin to grumble that she calls Glenbard her city. Lisa’s response is a response worthy of a young Ayn Rand protagonist:
“Lisa, why do you keep calling it your city—saying it’s your property?”
“Because it is! I thought I told everyone that on the very first day.”
“But we’ve all helped build it, haven’t we?” argued Jill. “The kids are starting to call you selfish. They don’t like it when you call it yours.”
“Selfish? I guess I am. But there’s more to it than that. Don’t forget, it was my discovery. The place was sitting here empty…I found it. I planned it, filled it with my supplies, now I run it.
“I know you like to share things, but it just doesn’t work the way you’d like it to. In the first place, nothing would ever get done. With no one in charge and no one to make decisions, the group would argue all the time about whose property should be shared. And then …they’d be too busy to accomplish anything.
“I do own this place. I didn’t force anyone to come here…Call me selfish if you like, but I don’t want to own anybody. I don’t want anyone to own me…Freedom is more important than sharing, Jill. This is my city. I plan to run it well and build it into something good. But I have to do it the way I think is best.”
Lisa decides the best way to run her city is to offer something better to her citizens than they can find anywhere else.