Friday, June 3, 2022

Lessons from I Am Margaret

 Do I believe this enough to die for it?

In the future world of I Am Margaret by Corinna Turner, every citizen is Sorted at the age of eighteen. All young men and women must take a series of standardized tests. Those who pass are labeled New Adults; those who do not achieve a high enough score are “reAssigned.”

Margaret Verrall’s fate seems sealed: with numeric dyslexia, she can’t expect to score high enough on the math exam, despite her excellent results in the other subjects. As suspected, Margo is sent as a reAssignee to the Facility where she will spend the rest of her days exercising and getting her body into peak form. After that, those in charge will march her into the Lab where she will be dismantled, her organs harvested for use for someone more worthy of them. This world of the future takes our current society’s disrespect for life and carries it to its natural end.

​​To know there is nothing more to it. That a dead body is made up of only two things—useful parts and useless parts. That the human race is made up of the same—useful people and useless people.

Margo summons her Catholic faith to comfort and sustain her. She and her family belong to the Underground, the secret community of believers; in this dystopian world, Christianity and religious practice are forbidden, since their moral tenets obviously oppose the culture of death around them. Margo prays her rosary and her fiance, Bane, even manages to catapult a consecrated Host over the Facility’s wall so she can receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday (a nice gesture, but troubling as it seems disrespectful to handle the Eucharist in that way).

Still, after being forced to watch a family friend, Father Peter, undergo the cruelest punishment of all (Conscious Dismantlement), Margo struggles with one of her daily prayers. She has a hard time telling God that she will accept death, in whatever form He Wills it.

O Lord, I now, at this moment, accept whatever kind of death it may please You to send me, with all its pains and sorrows.

This is Margo’s internal conflict throughout the novel while the outer conflict involves forming a plan to escape the Facility. Escape becomes especially critical when Margo secretly enters the government’s annual contest: this year, a creative writing challenge. Margo sees this as an opportunity to tell the truth of her story, to help the people of her world understand that she has value and worth beyond her physical organs. 

And this is the simple truth. I am Margaret. I am just like you. If I were not, you would not be going to kill me.

But when she wins the contest and the truth is in print, her life hangs in the balance. Can her fiance help her and the others escape before Margo faces Dismantlement herself? And if she finds herself strapped down to a bed, the Doctor at hand to cut her open and remove her organs, does she have the moral courage to stay true to her faith or will she deny her beliefs in order to preserve her earthly life?

I Am Margaret is a heart-pounding read, especially the final third of the book, which I found particularly gripping and suspenseful. I admired Margo’s fortitude, selflessness, and leadership. I also appreciate how Turner aptly and poignantly incorporates other-abled characters, especially Jonathan, a blind young man, and Sarah, who has a mental disability. Turner does a good job pacing the narrative, too, placing dramatic events right where they are needed to jolt the reader’s sense of security.

That said, I found aspects of the book disagreeable—both on a pragmatic as well as moral level. The book would have profited from professional editing because the grammatical and punctuation errors distracted from the story (strange sentence structures, incorrect use of semicolons and commas, words missing, fragments functioning as sentences). I also felt annoyed by the overuse of character names (when you are having a conversation with someone, you don’t usually use their name to their face repeatedly) and the abundant italicizations. 

On a more serious note, parts of the plot puzzled me. Why would the government not actually read Margo’s book before it went to publication? Additionally, Margo’s fiance is not Catholic; he doesn’t belong to any religion actually and even aggressively tried to persuade Margo not to be Confirmed. Here is just one exchange between the two:

“You know, sometimes I get very jealous of those bits of crisp bread,” Bane would say, if I lamented too strenuously the missing of a Sunday Mass due to lack of priest. “It’s not bread, Bane, it’s Our Lord, you know that.” 

Yet, Margo never addresses this throughout the novel. Wouldn’t she express concern about the salvation of his soul? Or wouldn’t this create more conflict between the two?

The narrative bordered on gory at parts—perhaps it has too vivid imagery and description for some more sensitive readers. Other times the writing was downright crass. Consider this sentence just as one example:

And to give the fear the finger, I decided I would say the Act of Acceptance.

To me, this reads like a kind of desecration. How can a person pray while simultaneously profaning?

Also troubling are the many times that Margo places herself in situations of near occasion of sin. Jonathan, the blind boy, is moved to the girl’s room since the boys are too violent (which seems to be another plot hole—why are all the boys like this?). In order to disguise the fact that he is Catholic (and thus, avoid explaining why he won’t fornicate with any of the girls), Jonathan and Margo share the same bed at night. Although nothing seriously wrong happens between them, things are not entirely chaste either and the farce becomes more than just pretend as attraction between them escalates.

My body felt oddly hot as his bulk hovered over me in the dark. “I would have you safe…” he murmured, and his fingers moved to caress my tingling lips…

Margo’s thoughts are not chaste either:

What’d it said in that latest EuroGov pamphlet on spotting dangerous Underground members? ‘A freakish disinterest in sexual intercourse’? Hah, in their dreams! If I got out of here, Bane and a bed were pretty high on my list of priorities. Via a priest, of course. 

When my children are teenagers, this is not the kind of thing I would like them to read.

So, while I appreciated and enjoyed the premise of I Am Margaret, I found serious problems with several aspects of the writing and the plot. 

I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on martyrdom. I’ve often wondered if I would have the fortitude to stand firm in my faith, even if doing so meant a gruesome death. I find comfort in Our Lord’s words that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid in such an instance. 

I’ve also thought about the kinds of martyrdom. Not many of us are called to capital “M” Martyrdom: the actual sacrificing of our life for the faith. Yet all of us are called to lower case “m” martyrdom: the daily witness of denying ourselves, resisting temptation, and choosing the right (often harder) path … the picking up of our cross. The truth is that we should die to self every day, in all the small inconveniences, pinpricks, and annoyances. It’s this little martyrdom that trains the soul for the greatest Martyrdom to which any of us might be called. 

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