Review of Alice Hoffman’s Green Angel

The other day I was plugging the Strange Horizons fall fund drive, and came across this review whilst perusing my archives at that great magazine. I love post-apocalyptic fiction not least because authors have such tellingly divergent ideas about what the end of the world  looks like. One man’s armageddon is another’s paradise.

What is Required of Survivors: Alice Hoffman’s Green Angel

She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground —Kurt Cobain

Green lives in the country with her market gardener parents and her younger sister Aurora. Aurora laughs and dances, her glowing white hair an extra moon. Green, by contrast, is quiet and moody, promising herself she will open to the world after she turns sixteen. However, she has the greenest thumb in the family. She may prefer plants to people, but what she touches, grows. She can hear plants growing.

One day her parents ask her to stay behind and weed while they take Aurora to the city to sell produce. Green feels left out, and doesn’t say goodbye. Then fire engulfs the city, laying it to waste, covering the world with flying ash, ruining her eyes.

Neither Y2K nor 9/11 are explicitly referred to in the book, yet our time is haunted by millennial fever; apocalypse approaches, we often feel, on many fronts. Perhaps Green’s parents originally hailed from the unnamed city, wanting to raise their children in the country, near woods and streams, where the air was clean, where it was still possible to steal time away from a busy life for oneself. Time to think, possibly even to heal. This is something myself and my husband did, not so much out of a calculated consideration of the pros and cons of city or country living, as by a kind of intuitive following of our noses. Fifteen years later, we have not regretted it.

Alone yet alive, Green regrets her anger. Hiding in her once beautiful house, she sews thorns into all her clothes, hammers nails into her father’s old boots. She hopes to deter looters, but quickly finds out they are mostly old schoolmates. Their world destroyed, they drink and dance around bonfires all night. She brings them bread and soup.

A hawk befriends Green, and songbirds, and a mysterious white dog, but nothing is enough to stop her from tattooing ravens into her skin by candlelight each night.

I know of young people now who tattoo themselves; perhaps Alice Hoffman does too, or hears of them. Why do they do this? The sky has not fallen, as it does in Green Angel. In Hoffman’s book, the tattooing is a response to loss; Green’s kind parents and moonlit sister are gone, she believes, forever. There are no corpses, no autopsies. They might yet have escaped the conflagration. Yet as time passes, Green knows that if her family had lived, they’d have made it home by now. And so the tattooing begins. It is a kind of rite of survival. Scarification has been practiced in many cultures as a ritual of adulthood. In Green’s case, her parents are suddenly gone; she has become, overnight, an adult. She has to fend for herself. There is no one else to do it for her except perhaps the kindly, somewhat dotty old lady next door, a woman who serves in the story more as fairy godmother/oracle than as what we think of as adult help today. She knows she cannot give Green, or Ash, as she renames herself, lists of things to do, tasks to complete. Clean your room, brush your teeth, don’t stay out too late, do your homework are no longer relevant. Instead, she can hold up a mirror to Green. You are alone now. As in Delany’s recently reissued Dhalgren, or Lessing’s beautiful Memoirs of a Survivor, there is no longer any infrastructure to support her. If Green/Ash is to make it through, she will do so by standing on her own two feet, by surviving not only the loss of her family, but the loss of the complex social/technological weaving that is modern society. The question Hoffmann seems to pose in this book is: Is this possible, and if so, how is it done? The lady next door teaches Ash she must be kind to herself, not get lost in her pain, allow herself both time and hope enough to begin to weave all the broken threads back together. She cannot remake what she has lost, but perhaps she can make something new.

Ash spends a lot of time alone, although she takes quickly to helping others. She soon decides that partying until a state of catatonia arrives is a foolish choice. Perhaps she tattoos herself not only to claim the now necessary adulthood which her previous world denied her, but also to say to the world: you cannot hurt me any more. I refuse it. I will hurt myself first, and then any further hurt you inflict will be meaningless beside what I can inflict upon myself.

There is a dark beauty in it. A slightly mad behavior, compulsive, obsessive, perhaps it yet gives her space. Perhaps, pinning one more raven into her skin is what prevents Ash from going down to the bonfire, falling asleep, doused in alcohol, too close to the flames. It’s an activity, and an artistic one at that.

Green Angel is a short book, an easy read. Part fable, part fairy tale, it reads like a prose poem. Hoffman is author of several other books for young people, including Aquamarine and Indigo. She has written over a dozen novels for adults, including Practical Magic, which was made into the popular eponymous film. In interviews Hoffmann has said she is very much influenced by fairy tales as a writer and tries to capture some of their timeless resonance, partially by explicitly leaving out all specific references to contemporary culture. There are no brand names in Green Angel and no references to pop music. Somehow these choices make the book speak more profoundly to the present than if it were cluttered with the minutiae of daily existence. We don’t see anyone use computers or cell phones, even before the destruction. While intended for the young adult market, the lush poetic prose, the resonant imagery, holds appeal for adult readers as well. Big themes are tackled, loss and redemption on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale. The story is both personal and global, as all our stories are.

I live in a village in Central Ontario. Last August, we were without power for a day and a half. In some places, the outage lasted much longer. On countless newscasts we were told it could happen again at any time, that the power grid was indeed a shredding tapestry, its weakest links unknown even to those whose responsibility it is to maintain what we all depend upon, to such an astonishing degree, perhaps naively.

It’s winter now; we’ve had a long spell of minus twenty weather. I have a furnace, but I burn wood because it’s cheaper and friendlier to the environment. I ordered extra. If it can happen in August, why not in December? Last summer, I asked one of the village teenagers how his power failure had gone, and he answered, “Another day or two would have been good. We were just beginning to learn to pull together as a community, which is what we need.” It was the independent stores that continued to do business, selling us ice and batteries and matches and candles. The stores that relied on scanners closed early; they were not allowed, by their chains’ policy, to make out handwritten receipts. Without scanners, they couldn’t read bar codes, didn’t know how much things cost.

They couldn’t help us.

In Green Angel the remaining storekeepers are suspicious of Ash’s strange new appearance, afraid she will try to harm them in some way. There is a lack of trust. Then a hooded stranger her own age arrives, and she allows him to move into her barn. Ash is now partially blind, but she is given a gift in return for her loss. She can sense whether people are truthful or deceitful, and while others mistrust the stranger, she can feel his goodness. Diamond, as she names him, is mute, but communicates nonetheless. Each day he stands in her garden as if to say, you are not alone, I made it through too. We cannot be together now, each too wounded still in our own way, singular, riven, but perhaps later on we can.

Perhaps there will be a later on, when we can attempt it, is what Diamond’s presence seems to say in Ash’s life.

Hoffmann’s questions about what is required of us to become survivors seem reasonable to me, perhaps even essential. As to why she has written this book for teenagers, my guess would be this: the young feel more acutely the fractures inherent in our time. They cannot turn their backs, deny. They point to the sky, saying, look, it is about to fall. We laugh at them, their melodrama, saying, but people have always said this.

We take pills and try and pass them off on the children as well. Some throw them away, saying, no pills please, no blinkers. One teenager I know said, “The sky will fall, but some of us will dance with the pieces.” By the end of Green Angel, the protagonist has gained a third name, and has learned to juggle the sharp shards of falling sky.

Read the full review at Strange Horizons:

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