Normally (a word to be used advisedly when speaking of dystopias, which are all individual and unique and different from each other, but still!) when I think of dystopias, I think of large-scale pictures of societies in turmoil and decay, or turmoil and wrong-headed development, or sometimes just turmoil taken to the nth degree itself. And I think secondly of science fiction/fantasy, because that is the “category” to which most dystopias necessarily belong, as visions of the future (I refuse to use the word “genre,” because “genre” means a quite different and specific thing in literary analysis; it does not really mean “the difference between a mystery novel and a romance novel.” If I’ve ever used it incorrectly, may the literary gods that be have mercy on me). But I digress.
The book I am reviewing today, Cynthia Kadohata’s novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love, is indeed set in the future (around the year 2052 or so), and it is unquestionably a dystopia, because it features many and varied negative societal outcomes that are worse than what we currently experience. But there are two main ways in which it is different from all the others that have come my way. Those ways are 1) that the bad incidents and happenings in this world are directly connected to things which have already happened, such as water and gas rationing being a problem, bug spraying over a large area of a city or town, things going mysteriously missing in the mails, government conspiracies and cover-ups, and so on and so forth, and 2) the extremely myopic or tunnel vision view of all these events and many more as experienced by the main character Francie and her boyfriend Mark.
I am more used to characters who are involved directly in fighting the dystopic elements, who come into direct contact regularly and usually (and eventually) tragically or with loss with “those in charge.” But in Kadohata’s world (Los Angeles and Chicago and the environs of the near future), the main characters go around largely as many of us do today, more or less accepting the limits set on them, or at least avoiding an outright conflict over their “rights.” They seem to be living their lives by rumors about how things are rather than with any exact certainty that such and such a thing is true. This is what I mean by seeing with tunnel vision or myopically. They understand what the safe limits are by the experiences of others they know or have heard of, and except for trying to get their friend Jewel to leave her abusive boyfriend (a situation as old as society itself), or trying to decide whether the character Matt, a man whom their college newspaper has defended, has actually committed murder or not, they are not political firebrands. No government body is obviously oppressing them in particular, and what oppression there is is accepted by them as simply part of their way of life, however much they might deplore it.
The novel is narrated in first-person by Francie, and she contemplates her society at large in various comments and asides, but she clearly takes the small view of large things and events: she is living her life the best way she can, and having experiences more or less similar to what any young woman of average intelligence and sensibility might have, barring a certain sort of superstitious nature, apparently a function of having lost her parents early, and having lost along with the aunt she lives with their male protector, her Aunt Annie’s boyfriend Rohn (he is mysteriously arrested and disappears). Forces loom largely over the protagonists, but–to echo religious Scripture vaguely–no one exactly knows the time of his or her going or the manner.
Such subtleties prevail that the novel progresses more like a young woman’s diary entries than like a novel, though the “diary” is broken up into titled chapters instead of dated entries. It is only at the very end, when Francie is contemplating her habit of “seeing” dead or missing people in the sky, that she utters the chilling flash forward comment: “In the months to come, the sky would get even more crowded, but I would take my inspiration from right here.” “Right here” is as we finally realize “the heart of the valley of love”: it turns out to be a valley that a friend’s father and grandfather had spoken of, where they had buried a time capsule box of sorts, and which other people are quickly turning into a junkyard and dumping ground. And there is the aura of hope: with Francie is still Mark, her boyfriend, who stands beside her there, and she is capable of still finding inspiration, even in the middle of a wasted landscape. And that’s the end of the novel. Rather, perhaps it is the beginning of a new kind of dystopia, one focusing less on gigantic, large-scale plots, stratagems, and catastrophes, and one which takes these things for granted but looks instead at what can be achieved modestly and in small by Everywoman and Everyman. It’s certainly a thought!