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Friday Indie Review: Tent City by Kelly Van Hull

I’m going to admit upfront here, that I could not make it all the way through this book.Strangely enough, it was not the writing itself that drove me out of this story. The author clearly understands sentence-craft and how to convey meaning. However, the content, or more specifically the contradictions in the content, finally pushed me to a point where I couldn’t continue reading without actually yelling at the book. After about the ninth or tenth shouting-match with the Kindle, Frog suggested that I might be better off just writing my review from what I’d already read.Which is why I think this review is a great time to talk about necessity of content editing and exactly what it does for a story.
A copy editor fixes the grammatical structure of a story for clarity, consistency, and smoothness. A content editor does some same thing for the overall story and characterizations. I really wish someone had taken a look at this book before it was published and flagged all the contradictions in the content for the author. All of the flaws which made the book ultimately unreadable for me are fixable. These inconsistencies add up, and make the whole book much, much less than its original potential. I’ll also state that I’ve seen Tent City’s Amazon page, and it has some very good reader reviews. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with those readers, and here’s why:Every time the protagonist contradicted herself, or acted without motivation, or attributed clearly unbelievable motivations (or opinions) to another character without a story line reason, it put a little more strain on my ability to stay in the story. Eventually, when so many problems had piled up that I couldn’t ignore them anymore, these inconsistencies utterly destroyed my ability to believe in the world the author tried to create.

Before we can really discuss my problems with this book and how they may have been avoided, I’ll need to give you a summary of the basic plot premise. So, here we go:

Tent City is set in the aftermath of a nationwide plague of locusts that destroyed all food supplies in the United States. Immediately after this crisis, the President stepped down and handed rule of the country over to “The General” and his “Council.” It’s been several years since the General took control over the Government, and the Army is still in control of the civilian population. Dani (who’s seventeen) and her family learn from a high ranking Uncle in the Army that all children from ages five to eighteen are about to be rounded up. They’re going to be put in a camp by The Council “for their own protection” because too many children are starving.

No mention is made of when or why the General changed this country’s age of majority to a person’s nineteenth birthday. But I’ll come back to that.

Then the Uncle also tells them that Dani will actually be put in a forced breeding camp, to try and replenish the nation’s dwindling number of children. Her Dad isn’t willing to trust her or her little brother to these camps. He decides to send Dani, with her five year old brother, to hide out in old summer cabin that’s high in a deserted part of the mountains.

Ok, so that’s the basic foundation for this book. Everything else springs from here. So what’s my problem? The book makes way too many assertions about the world, which it expects the reader to take on faith. And then later, it will arbitrarily contradict those assertions when it’s convenient for the overall plot– without any regard for the mental contortions it’s causing characters (and ultimately, the reader) to go through.

For instance, if the food supplies are destroyed to point where people are dying by the thousands from flat out starvation as Dani informs us (not from rioting, mugging, burglary, or any other forms of violence that might happen during a food shortage), isn’t having fewer children to feed at the present time a good thing? Wouldn’t you at least want to ramp up the food supply first, before implementing a “baby factory”? That’s not even a new theory.

Dani also tells us the Government accidentally poisoned many water supplies trying to get rid of the locust, so potable water is very difficult to come by. If there’s really no food and no water, (or at least very little) even the Government it going to have an awfully difficult time supporting an entire camp of nothing but pregnant girls, horny boys, small children, and the presumably exponential number of babies from such a program. And none of this even begins to address why the Council suddenly wants all of its new mothers from the under-age population…

Not to mention, why does the government want to have a “baby factory” when its resources are so severely strained? Wouldn’t a camp to try and restart the agriculture industry or some other food producing scheme be way, way sexier to the Government? Unless the author’s suggesting “A Modest Proposal,” scenario here, this breeding camp doesn’t make much sense as it’s written.

Any of this could have been fixed if the reader had been given even a hint of the Council’s “Real Motives” in this situation. They’re actually hoarding the available food and water supplies, for example. Or they’re intentionally letting the adults starve to get rid of dissenters. Maybe they want all the children in order to indoctrinate them into the “New Army” or something. Anything other than, “They want all the children to keep them from starving, and oh, by the way, also to make more babies.”

But, I should continue:

Dani’s Dad also warns her that the Government is bugging phones, and doing all sorts of surveillance on ordinary citizens. The Council watches malls, main roads, the works. In order to even give her a chance of getting away, her Uncle had to forge death certificates for her and her brother. Dani tells us her Dad has obviously thought about this escape plan really hard, planned out the whole route, and prepared the supplies she needs to take with her before he even brings it up as an idea. She’s only to use the route he’s marked for her on a map to get to the family’s old summer cabin.

And yet, he doesn’t bother to go over the map or the route with her, letting her almost take off in the wrong direction while he is standing right there. It’s up to her friend (that presumably we’ve also wheedled the Uncle into forging a death certificate for, somehow?) to tell her she’s holding the map upside down, and heading the wrong way. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t part of Dad’s clever plan to send his offspring into the woods to starve, so Mom doesn’t have to watch.

This is suspicion is further strengthened when the main character complains that Dad must have given them enough supplies to last on their own for at least a month, which surely can’t be necessary because the vacation cabin they’re headed to has its own supplies– or at least it did when they were there many years ago– which is also known as before the locust attack. I have absolutely no idea why Dani’s so sure it hasn’t been looted or that the food’s still good. I also don’t know why she thinks the governmental breeding program she’s hiding from will last less than a month.

Given the human rate of gestation, that seems highly improbable. In fact, given the fact that the Government is going to the trouble of making a camp at all, it is more likely to go on for quite some time after that. And given all the surveillance Dad says the Army has everywhere (explicitly making the hide-in-the-basement option inviable earlier in the book, by the way), it’s not like she’s just trying to duck around the breeding patrol and then head back home.

Let me run that one past you again. The main character, who has just been told she has to run away or be sent to a breeding camp, thinks she really won’t have to hide out for more than a few weeks. Even if you assume she’s no longer subject to the program after she turns nineteen, that’s over a year away. And just in case you’re thinking that I’m over-reacting, and the author really meant the program ends on her eighteenth birthday, the author is obliging enough to introduce us to a boy who’s already eighteen and is still getting sent to the camp. Actually, he’s rather happy about it, which is one of the only believable things I found in the front of this book. He hears he’s being sent to a “baby factory,” and you can pretty much hear the 1970′s waka-chika music cue in his head.

Then to add insult to injury, Dad– who supposedly agonized over sending Dani on this daring and risky mission to a cabin he’s vacationed at frequently in better times– doesn’t even bother to give her enough gas to make it there, or think to mark a gas station on the map, or possibly even mention to her beforehand that she’ll probably need to stop somewhere.

News Flash, Dani– Dad hates you.

There is no other possible explanation.

Ok, well, maybe one:
Maybe Dad is an absolute, chew-on-your-knuckles moron, but the author hasn’t set that up either.

Again, any content editor worth their weight would have told the author Dad’s actions needed some more scrutiny here, unless the author’s actually going for, “Dad is a heartless asshole, and Dani just doesn’t know it.” And even then, we, the readers, need some hints of that in Dad’s behavior toward Dani in the beginning, even if she doesn’t pick up on it.

But let’s move on.

Dani finds a gas station at random, and decides to believe her friend who says it’s ok to just go in. Here’s where the book absolutely fell apart for me. In talking to the people at the gas station, she and her friend blatantly contradict the militaristic, oppressive view of the Council that she’s been trying so hard to set up. Everyone at the gas station is apparently perfectly happy with the Council. Dani even goes out of her way to tell us everyone still believes they live in a free country, with a free government, and oh by the way, that’s what Dad always tells her too. Sure, the government confiscated everyone’s land, and no one really owns property anymore, but it’s still a free country. Do those two assertions really need to come out of our main character’s mouth at the same time? Does it even make sense that a Dad who sent his seventeen year old out into the world, specifically to hide from the Government, would still believe he’s free?

Anyway, Dani and company still tell everyone at the gas station that they’re running away from the government, for apparently no reason at all, and are shocked when the folks at the gas station try to detain them.

Fortunately for them, the people at the gas station belong to the imperial-storm-trooper-academy-of-marksmanship on top of everything else. Moral questions aside, a five year old clinging on the back of a four-wheeler should not be hard to hit with a firearm. Nor should hitting that four wheeler somewhere that actually causes damage be difficult from a few feet away– especially when that four wheeler already been halfway submerged in water earlier in the book. (Don’t even ask.)

And that’s as far as I read. The main character may eventually get to a Tent City, but I did not.

I think what kills me about this book is that the actual mechanics of the writing are fine. The premise (as given on the back of the book) sounds pretty fun. When I first started reading, I really hoped for a modern, dystopian spin on the Hoovervilles of the 1930′s. After all, we’re still talking mass famine and deprivation, here. That spin may even still exist in this book somewhere.

But the main character changes her world-view as soon as it’s convenient for the plot, making the setting as firm as Jello on a 90 degree day. You just can’t trust anything Dani’s told you in the paragraph before to actually stay put.

All told, the book was a huge disappointment to me, and not recommended.

Friday-Indie-Logo Zero point 5