The young adult genre can be as repetitive as it is inventive, so the popularity of the dystopian YA subgenre guarantees some familiar storylines. It seems unfair, then, to classify Sally Gardner’s new novel, Maggot Moon, as dystopian YA, as it defies comparison to all of its shelfmates. Rather than looking ahead to a bleak future, Gardner imagines what the 1950s would have been like if the Allies had lost World War II. In the Motherland, “impurities” are “rubbed out,” citizens snitch or starve, and sheep have the best chance for survival.
Fifteen-year-old Standish Treadwell is no sheep. He is dyslexic (like the author)—“Can’t read, can’t write, Standish Treadwell isn’t bright”—and therefore an impurity, an easy target both at school and in the Motherland. His dyslexia, however, is more a power than a hindrance. It keeps his eyes up and his ears open, and through his wry, incisive and original voice, he creates a narrative that is not quite linear, resembling instead the colorful mind of a daydreamer.
Standish escapes his circumstances by retreating into his one remaining vestige of independence, his imagination. He and his best friend Hector dream of the free world, “Croca-Colas” and Cadillacs. They build a rocket ship to take them to Juniper, an imagined utopian planet with a name that feels within the realm of possibility, yet is obviously unobtainable. They are not alone in their dreams of reaching the stars, as the Motherland takes strides each day to be the first nation to land a man on the moon.
When Hector and his family are taken away just before the moon launch, Standish finds himself uniquely positioned to risk all and unveil the Motherland’s elaborate ruse to its citizens and the rest of the world. He is the wolf among the sheep.
In Maggot Moon, hope lies in truth. This is a small victory, but an achievable one, especially for a clear-eyed boy driven by friendship.