Book Review: The Panem Companion, by V. Arrow

Certain popular books just cry out for deeper analysis. What does the United States’ obsession with the Twilight series mean for our perceptions of women and of healthy relationships, for example? Why have the Harry Potter books held such a grip on not just children, but adults, for literally a decade?

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is perfectly deserving of critical analysis–its statements on race, justice, economics, war, and media are thoughtful without being preachy. Written by V. Arrow, a Hunger Games superfan and critical reader, The Panem Companion is a great introduction to some of the deeper themes and sociopolitical commentary found in THG.

While other reviewers may have found this book dry, I went into it expecting a compelling critical analysis, and for the most part, that’s exactly what I got. I also thought that Arrow’s voice was wonderful: informative without being condescending, funny without needing to try too hard, sensitive without pandering. You can tell Arrow loves THG, yet is also willing to analyze and critique it, something that many fans aren’t necessarily able to do.

My favorite chapters had to do with the socioeconomic and racial demographics and histories of Panem. They were in-depth and well-thought out, yet also fairly readable for someone who is perhaps new to critical race theory. I thought the chapter that dealt with Katniss’s race was especially well-done. It acknowledges the “controversy” of Katniss potentially being a non-white heroine (though represented by Jennifer Lawrence, a white actress, in the movie version) with a level of nuance and understanding that I had not previously read. I loved the conclusion Arrow came to, as well–that while Katniss may very well be racially white, in the social and political structure of Panem, she is definitively ethnically non-white. It’s a fair way of using the information given to us by Collins, while still acknowledging current racial inequalities and disparities in a thoughtful and significant way. Kudos, V. Arrow, kudos!

There were, however, some instances of overreaching. For example, the last section of the book focused on the significance of character names. While character names are certainly important–Katniss was named Katniss for a reason–I did find it hard to believe that Suzanne Collins put as much thought into the names of minor characters as Arrow thinks she does. Some of the connections and references were so tenuous as to be a bit silly. Investigating the roots of the name Tax, who was the archery instructor for the quarter quell, or Rooba, the District 12 butcher, don’t appear to be constructive applications of the author’s time. Investigating potential meanings of the names Rue or Coriolanus Snow, however, are. So the names section is a bit of a toss-up.

There was also a great discussion of what the country of Panem might look like, and how it might have developed (geological disasters!). However, in the e-reader version of the book at least, this “new” map of North America wasn’t included. I have trouble visualizing place and distance, and so Arrow’s Panem map would have been a welcome addition to the text. That’s really my only other complaint.

But for a few instances of overreaching, The Panem Companion is a worthwhile reference for and analysis  of The Hunger Games. It delves deeply into the text in a way that never feels overly-critical, while still honoring and celebrating fan contributions to and interactions with the books. It is this type of critical analysis of popular culture that is so interesting and so important, and I’m glad that Smart Pop books has made such a concerned effort to publish these works. (I’m also very impressed with Arrow’s scholarship, and wish I knew what other works she has written–Arrow is a pen name.)

I received The Panem Companion free for review from publisher Ben Bella through NetGallery. The Panem Companion will be released for purchase on December 4, 2012.

Bookwanderer Tagline: “Though Panem does not seem to have the same racial markers (or ethnic, cultural, or religious markers) as we do, that does not mean that these differences don’t exist, and does not mean that they should be ignoredwhen we are given the distinctions between Panem’s races in the text.”
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars

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