Isis Ann Murray, known by her friends as Ice or Icie, loves language, Starbucks, smart-ass T-shirts, horror films, her iPhone, and Tristan. With her best friend Lola, Icie engages in linguistic creativity, creating Ripples—words that lose their individual identities when they swirl into new forms, adding flavor to conversation. Freaking idiot, for example, becomes fridiot, and terrifically boring becomes borrific. Icie’s life is flowing as smoothly as life can for a seventeen-year-old whose dad is a nuclear physicist and whose mom works for the federal government, but she learns that, regardless of life’s banality or beauty, Psycho-style surprises can erupt. When Tristan—two weeks before prom—dumps her in a text, Icie doesn’t think her life can get any worse–until it does.
While at the Mall engaged in retail therapy with Lola, Icie receives a 911 text from her parents who are spouting about terrorist threats and evacuation urgency. Afraid, Icie attempts to erase the apocalyptic scenarios from her mind and wishes she “could switch [her] brain off or download some firewall to prevent these images from causing [her] brain to crash” (33). As events unfold and ratchet up on the Richter scale of freaking horrible, Icie has to become strong in ways she never envisioned possible.
Separated from her parents during their attempts to flee to an abandoned nuclear waste storage bunker in Nevada, Icie ultimately enters the quarantine with Marissa—a cheerleader; Tate—a naïve twelve-year-old rich boy, rockstar wannabe; and Chaske—a Native American with a mysterious past. Their fate and struggle to survive a bioterror attack unfolds in the pages of Sara Grant’s new book Half Lives.
Although these events form the plot of Half Lives, another story runs parallel to this one, a story far in the future that features a society of Cheerleaders and rockstars. This society lives in a post-apocalyptic world called Forreal that believes in the Great I AM, a deity that preaches peace, compassion, and common sense. On the Mountain of Forreal, Cheerleader Quarterly is the Bible, the word whatever has taken on a solemn, prayerful meaning, and Just Sayings are memorized like proverbs rather than the platitudes many of them are. In this world, Beckett is Cheer Captain; he is a man of thought, of waiting and Saying, who believes that “we must not react with anger before we have all the facts” (164). His nemesis, Finch, is a man of action, who believes “only the heat of battle can forge a hero” (170). The battle between Vega and Forreal is reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ provocative anti-war parable The Butter Battle Book, a satirical depiction of a deadly war based on a senseless conflict over something as trivial as on which side one chooses to butter his/her bread.
Into her plot and character creations, Grant creatively weaves allusions to Egyptian mythology, to contemporary and historical memes, to multiple horror films, and to books like Waiting for Godot, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies. She also raises the debate of how to resolve issues surrounding the management and disposal of dangerous nuclear waste—some of which is deadly for more than 10,000 years—and how to protect future generations who may not speak the same language or understand the symbols of today. In that argument, Grant offers the peace symbol inscribed in a circle. From just the white space, not the inked lines, emerges the radioactive symbol. Grant’s book invites serious thought not only on this subject but on other topics relevant to civic engagement:
- A terrorist is someone who hates and destroys (143).
- Societies invent myths to protect themselves from certain truths (143).
- “Grief and fear are helpless emotions. They are thrust upon you and all you can do is suffer. But anger has power and purpose. Anger gives a victim control” (192).
- Sometimes we invent an enemy, someone we can destroy so that our fear can subside (192).
- We hate what we don’t understand and fear an enemy we’ve only imagined.
- “Everything happens for a reason” versus “Sometimes horrible things happen and they are just horrible. Not signs. No meaning, just horrible” (296).
- “We can let bad things define us” (296).
- Death is the price of peace (299).
- “We are all to blame for not speaking up, standing up, shouting, kicking and screaming, and demanding better from the world, our leaders, each other, and ourselves” (330).
- “Evil wins when good men do nothing” (357).
In times of civic unrest and when terrorism prevails, a book like Half Lives cautions us to think carefully, to challenge our assumptions, to break out of received assumptions, and to understand the significance of another person’s suffering and achievements. These abilities to think critically, become a world citizen, and imagine others’ lives sympathetically are crucial in a democratic culture. In Icie, who conquers the dark to become a guiding light, Grant gives readers a character worthy of both celebration and aspiration.