Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice Cream Star is perhaps one of the grimmest and saddest dystopias I've ever read. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I'm still not sure I've unpacked all the horror - horror made all the worst because the teenaged, and most unreliable narrator/protagonist never quite understands how many ways she - and the people she claims as her own, her responsibility - have been used and abused and will in all likelihood continue to be.
There will be spoilers in what follows.
Ice Cream Star's country is the Nighted States - which likely includes all of North America - about 80 years after a plague has struck, killing off some unknown proportion of the population and prompting the flight of almost all white people from the continent. Exactly what happened, and how and why, is very vague, because our narrator knows only the barest bones of the tale, passed through the mouths of children.
What Ice Cream Star knows is that North Americans began dying, suddenly and quickly, from a disease called WAKS, which preferentially affected white people. At some point, the uninfected - possibly only the uninfected white - were evacuated to Europe. Left behind was a population of people of colour. All adults left behind seemed to have died of WAKS, but the surviving children were resistant, living long enough to die, in their late teens, from something else, colloquially known as posies, which may or may not be a variant of WAKS. Posies, of course, calls to mind the 'pocket full of posies' - flowers or herbs carried to mask the smell of death - from the nursery rhyme commonly thought to be a reference to the Great Plague (experts on folklore dispute this interpretation, though). But from the symptoms, and from the identification of posies as a carcinoma, I found myself thinking of Karposi's, and wondering if the original disease may have been mutagenic, weakening immune systems even among those resistant and their descendants, leaving them open to opportunistic infections.
So here we have a continent full of children, raising and bearing other children, living only to 18 or 20 then dying from something akin to AIDS, surviving on the remains of a dead civilisation, banding into groups and passing down garbled, half-remembered, half-fantastical memories of a dead culture.
While the geopolitics of this world are hazy, we gather from what Ice Cream Star knows, or learns from others (equally unreliable), that Russia and Europe have a vaccine or a cure for posies, that people live to a normal old age, and that civilization continues in those places. Russia, at least, seems to be conducting wars in various places around the globe, notably South America and Africa. And the Russians ('roos') keep their armies at strength by press-ganging child soldiers from North America. Aside from this, the rest of the world seems content to sit back and let the poor, black and Hispanic children of North America live their short lives of poverty and struggle.
The story itself is set in and around the former states of Massachusetts and New York, and the former District of Columbia. There are several quite different communities of survivors in this area, but the important thing to hold in mind that all the people in these communities are children. No one who is native to the Nighted States lives beyond 20, and many die earlier, from "posies" or from other illnesses, from accidents, from what is essentially gang warfare. Ice Cream Star and her people live in Massa Woods, where they are relative new-comers, having "come up from Chespea Waters." There are three other established communities in the area, the Christings, the Lowells and the Nat Mass Army. The Lowells are the largest community in the area, and the most technologically advanced, having made efforts to reclaim, understand and duplicate the remnants of the pre-plague culture. They live in a partially restored town and have plumbing and radios and they value science and education. The Christings are farmers, with a social order structured around a highly patriarchal reading/remembering of the Bible - organised by households, one older boy at the head with multiple wives and all their children. The Christings were a significant community in the area until recently, but most of the families have moved out, leaving only one Christing household in the area. The Nat Mass Army is a militaristic and male-dominated community. The boys hold the girls in common as nameless servants and sex partners, with one exception, the consort of the leader, or NewKing, who is always a girl given by the Christings, as a peace covenant. Ice Cream Star's Sengles are a small and relatively disorganised group, surviving by hunting, scavenging, trade, and 'thieving.'
Later in the novel we encounter two more cultures, each based in a city, with a much greater retention of knowledge and technology. The first of these is based in Ciudad de las Marias, formerly New York City. The dominant class, largely Latino, have imposed a form of theocractic rule on the black majority, in which the rulers of the city are a "Maria" - chosen in part through her ability to locate a light-skinned boy to serve as her "Jesus" - and a group of 12 "apostles" who witness her acquisition and then act as her counselors and the rulers of the "burrows." The Jesus, of course, is usually killed following the inauguration of the Maria and her sacred marriage to him, at her hands. The other community is a rigidly stratified military culture based in Quantico - formerly Washington D.C. - and devoted to the preservation of the Capitol area.
When Ice Cream Star captures a "roo" separated from his company of kidnappers, and learns from him that his people have a cure for the posies, which her beloved brother and leader of the Sengles has recently contracted, a course of events is started that will disastrously affect the communities of Massa Woods and Quantico, and lead to massive upheaval in Marias.
Fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star is a disturbingly ambiguous hero. She becomes leader of the Sengles just as the roos have launched a major campaign to collect child soldiers in the Massa Woods area - by deception if possible, force if necessary. Their standard ploy is to offer the posies cure to those who go with them, then turn those they lure or forcibly capture into fodder for their interminable wars around the globe. Pasha, the roo that Ice
Cream Star captures, uses a variation of this ploy first to save his life and gain Ice Cream Star's trust, and later to manipulate her into initiating a war that will destabilise the entire area from Massa Woods to Quantico.
But Pasha is only one of many who use, deceive, abuse and manipulate Ice Cream Star. During the course of the novel, she is manipulated into unhealthy and deceptive sexual relationships, raped, used as a political bargaining chip, forced again and again into untenable situations as she tries to keep her people alive and find a cure for her brother. Her narrative positions her as a leader and active participant in much of this, but as the degree of unreliability of her perspective slowly becomes apparent, it also reveals the degree to which she is unwittingly used by those she encounters.
In the end, she has lost everything and is being taken away to become a pawn in an even larger political game - yet she continues to believe that her sacrifices will bring an end to the suffering of, not just her own people, but all the children of the Nighted States. It's heart-breaking to reach the end and finally realise how much has gone wrong, for Ice Cream Star and her country.
I haven't yet mentioned the thing that most people hone in on at the beginning - the language. Ice Cream Star and most other survivors speak variations of a language that seems partly derived from AAVE, with infusions of French (from Louisiana? From Quebec?), transformed by the powerful cadences of a people dependent on storytelling and oral traditions. I found it easy to read, others have found that it distanced them a bit from the text, making it easier for them to process the brutality of these children's lives thanks to the effort required to read it.
It's a difficult book, a bloody and tragic story, and I can't stop thinking about what it suggests about sexism, racism, colonisation, exploitation, and more frighteningly, human nature.