Thursday, July 21, 2011


Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien (NY: Roaring Brook Press, 2010).

The dystopic world of Birthmarked takes a society of haves and have nots to a new level. Gaia Stone, a teen-aged midwife who lives outside the walls of the Enclave in the village of Wharton, is definitely a have not. And her already harsh life has taken a turn for the worse as the novel opens and she finds that her parents have been arrested and taken to the prison inside the walls of the Enclave. She has been ostracized her entire life because of her scarred face--the result of a childhood accident. Despite this she has lived happily enough with her friend Emily and her parents, and she has learned to be a midwife from her mother. She knows her place as a midwife--to supervise births and hand over a quota of babies to the Nursery in the Enclave every month, babies that are needed to diversify the gene pool of the elite inhabitants who are falling prey to genetic illnesses like hemophilia after years of inbreeding. With her parents gone, suspected of treason, Gaia is not only alone, but under suspicion herself. A family friend gives her a codified message on a ribbon from Gaia's mother that may contain the information Gaia needs to get her parents out of prison--or get them killed. Gaia's efforts to save her parents lead her into the Enclave where she witnesses the barbarity of the government's controls, and begins to understand how far the officials will go to maintain their positions and their society.

O'Brien has created an oppressive world with an odd blend of the modern and archaic. The story moves along well, though the romance between Gaia and Officer Grey seems forced and unlikely. The mystery of the coded ribbon and Gaia's quest to save her parents provide an excellent focus that pushes the story forward and builds to a satisfying climax as Gaia has to decide what to do with the knowledge she gains within the walls. I would have liked more pointed criticism of the global climate change that led to the formation of this world, given that Wharton is situated on the banks of "Unlake Superior" and surrounded, supposedly, by wasteland. Perhaps in the sequel? Recommended for ages 12 & up.

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