Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Political Indigestion: O. T. Nelson, The Girl Who Owned a City (New York: Dell, 1975),

Although I've presented very clear ideas of what sf might be, I've tried to avoid outright political bias. But I've just read a book that left me feeling very disturbed, and when I discovered that this book is still taught in schools and is clearly very popular among children, I decided that I would post a political commentary.

Reading what I've put below, please keep in mind that what bothered me so much was the dishonesty of the political argument in this book, the way arguments presented as being to preserve liberty actually serve to construct the beginnings of tyrannt. O.T. Nelson is still alive. A friend of his (Winnie Dawson) posted here to say he is considering writing a sequel.

O. T. Nelson, The Girl Who Owned a City (New York: Dell, 1975), pb.

A very straightforward story in which post-plague (which effects adults only) a girl leads a bunch of other children to create a city. Elsewhere, other kids do the same, but in each case but this one, what they create is violent armies and gangs.

As Lisa takes control of the other children she consistently pushes a "private property" angle, but she does so in ways which are really disingenous. Nelson is a good writer, but that's part of the problem. Every time Jill (another child) criticised Lisa I found myself nodding. One of the ironies in the final chapters is that it is Lisa's insistence on benevolent tyranny that will allow the city to fall. Had it been a democracy, they would have had other leaders to fight for when she was kidnapped.


This is a survivalist book and there are lots of really good things. Lisa thinks and plans. She consideres where food might be found, and she organises a militia to protect all the “child-families” but there is never once a suggestion that they should gather together in houses so they can share the burden. The implication is that Jill has handicapped herself by taking in orphan children. Lisa herself only helps her brother. Other people's ideas are always wrong. One thing Lisa dismisses is Craig’s long term desire for a farm, in favour of her plan to re-start civilisation, but actually, Craig’s plan is far more sensible, and as we shall see, in Lisa's ideology, had they gone for the farm idea, the farm would have belonged to Craig. A decision that is presented as "commonsense is actually highly political.

Lisa decides she will share her knowledge, but not for free. My concern here (politically) is that this is set up as fundamentally different from the gangs’ protection racket, whereas in fact it is competitive with, but essentially just the same. Lisa is also very quick to decide that what she finds is hers. Yet as she realises earlier, what she has done is essentially to loot. Nelson frequently has Lisa see other ideas and dismiss them. Like the best of tyrants, she refuses to consider moral equivalence (she accepts the gang leader, Tom’s apology for hurting her brother, but it becomes clear she never intended to admit the gang to the group—this entire scene could have gone another way.)

Lisa is right to tell Jill that the children should co-operate in their own survival, and her decision to bargain with the kids—go work and you get a toy—isn’t stupid, but it doesn’t have to be set up in direct opposition to Jill’s notions, and it is. Later she declares, “Freedom is more important than sharing.” (135) The alternative for Craig and Jill, she says, is that they can use their freedom and leave. Frankly, all this does is demonstrate that Lisa thinks they are supine. They could, after all, always kick her out.

pp. 132-133 is the most unnerving. Jill challenges Lisa as to why she regards the city as her property, despite the fact that all the children helped build it. Lisa exerts “ownership through discovery” for both the city and the supplies. Voting can’t be countenanced because it infringes on Lisa’s “discovery-ownership”, completely ignoring that fact that the truck that brought the children and the supplies to the fort belonged to the father of one of the children, that there are now scavenger groups contributing to the structure of the fort.

Lisa tries to make it sound equal by telling Jill that when she finds a hospital it will belong to Jill, but it is clear that Jill is unconvinced. After all, will Lisa return the sweat that Jill has put into Lisa’s property?

There is no sweat equity at all. What Lisa discovers is hers. What others discover is also Lisa’s. Far from setting up a libertarian community, and in sharp contrast to Lisa’s idea that a “king” in Chicago is dark ages stuff, Lisa has set herself up as a prince who has abrogated to herself pretty much all ownership. That nice little scene where she gives children toys, is not a scene in which children acquire property ownership. If we trace what happens in the course of the book, what Lisa has recreated is vassalage in which individuals “own” property on behalf of the monarch.

And just to cap it all, she invents debt peonage as well. The Constitution reads: “Each citizen was free to leave if he or she ever wanted to. But he had to leave free of debt. There was a provision for that. Everyone had to earn his place in the city by the means decided on by both parties—Lisa and the citizen.” (137)


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glen Ellyn!!!!! That book was very popular in my high school because it took place there.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen so many people spam a blog entry. Impressive. Your thoughts on the girl who owned a city are also very thought provoking.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always enjoyed reading "The Girl WOAC" as a child and was thinking about rereading it as an adult. While on a search found this site. I never connected the political undertones of this story as a child. [another good book with pol. understones: "Flight of the Doves" which takes place right after the Irish obtain their freedom from the English]. Very interesting thoughts on this book. I'm surprised they still teach this book in schools. I wish you would have also covered WHAT/HOW schools teach this book to present students. Thanks!

12:43 PM  
Blogger John said...

Wow! You sure have a lot of spam comments here.

This page is linked on the Wikipedia entry on The Girl Who Owned a City. I find your comments really interesting, and I am going to re-read this book because of them. I read this book in Junior High, and I just remember it being a cool adventure story, but it seems that there may have been more to it than that. I hate it when I realize that books or movies I like as a kid were thinly veiled propaganda.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I teach 7th grade ELA and am seriously considering teaching GWOAC. I think Lisa's is a great example of a dynamic character, and she is a smart, strong, female. I liked your thoughts on the political angle and plan to investigate more and use that angle to help kids relate the themes in this book to what is going on in the world today.


11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy cow. I just read this (it was given to me by a friend when I asked for recommendations--I'm taking a class which requires the reading of lots of YA books). I can't believe this is or ever was taught in schools. I can imagine it might have been tempting in the first years after it was written, by teachers frightened of the commune movement in the U. S. and the communist movement elsewhere, among other things--but blast! It's so badly written! The POV's all over the place, the message is as subtle as a semi, there's no grace to the story *or* the language, and the whole thing reads like political dogma thinly covered by crappy fiction. Oh, wait. That's because it IS political dogma thinly covered by crappy fiction.

I hope in the two years since this blog entry first posted, those of my fellow teachers who might have been using this in their classrooms have learned what good literature is.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i really liked this book. i thought it was interesting and fun to read. even though all that is true no one ever said that the main character of a book has to be right. lisa isnt perfect and thats what i like about this book. It shows positive aspects of lisa and negative too. The books keeps you wanting to continue reading the book. it keeps your interest. i remember as a little kid reading it and liking it and i think alot of kid will agree. i think kids can learn from it seeing how lisa acts and not liking it. i think if she was fair and acting fair the book wouldnt be realistic. When people get power it goes to there head. this is a perfect example.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stop beating up one of the better books on the planet! So what if it's a little weird at parts? (at least it's better than those crappy books you find on thrift shop shelves that make no sense!)

Anyway... is it Craig who is the one that leads the militia planning, or is he the farmer guy?

5:24 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have been searching for hours trying to find information on OT Nelson, the author of this book. I can't find anything! Do you know if he/she wrote any other books? Do you know where to find any information about the author?

5:28 PM  
Blogger Farah said...

Having only just figured out to get response alerts on blogger, I'm only just getting to all of these. Glad the post has been of interest. I'm afraid I have no new info.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Sir.Dylan said...

do adults have nothing else to do but b*tch about children's books?

i loved this book, LOVED.
i believe this book helped me get into literature all together
and in by doing so had me reading at a collage reading level by the 6th grade. its just a book. a fiction book that doesn't hurt anyone. i can see why it shouldn't be taught in school but come on, look at the bible i wouldn't want that load of rubbish taught in school but in some places it is, hey you cant win them all.
d@mn Christians, i know you wont approve this for your blog but i am just glad having you read it.
have a good day and for christ sake lay off the lcd.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Of course I would publish your comment? Why on earth not?

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that I read this book when I was in 5th grade, and now I'm about to graduate from college, on my way to graduate school, and I have NOT been able to stop thinking about this book for the past few months. However, part of that might have been a result of not remembering the title of the book and searching through the depths of my mind to remember parts of my story. I do remember that of the many books that I read when I was younger (either forced or voluntarily), this was one of the books that has left one of the biggest impacts on my life.

I do have to say though, after reading up on this book, apparently O.T. Nelson wanted to portray the ideas of Ayn Rand, who ironically happens to be one of my favorite writers. Oh well. Interesting views on this story...and interestingly enough, a similar storyline (the whole everybody over a certain age...this time 16..dies and the children are forced to create a society) was just published last year. The name of that book is Neptune's Children, so it would be interesting to read that one and compare the ideas and principles of that book to one written 30+ years before.

5:03 PM  
Blogger pls said...

Props to the commenter J. Mauldin Heiner for nailing the problems in this book ... wandering POV, thinly-veiled political commentary (Nelson himself stated that this book is his version of Ayn Rand's philosophy), and just plain errors: their cars never run out of gas; the other surviving children don't seem to be smart enough to think of grocery warehouses as a source of food; the adults who died must have kindly buried each other first, as there's no mention of the stench of millions of dead people nor an encounter with a dead body ... and the relationships between the older children are all antagonistic. Even younger children would tend to pair up in heterosexual relationships in real life, and yet Nelson manipulates his characters as if he expects them to behave like robots around each other. What drivel. As a (retired) teacher, this would have been one of the last post-apocalyptic YA novels I would have chosen to have taught in my English classes.

7:51 PM  

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