Released: June 2014
Imagine a world ravaged by plague, a population decimated, the remaining survivors never living past eighteen years old – due to war, mistreatment or a sickening disease called ‘posies’ – and yet, this earth is not a horrific nightmare-scape like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This isn’t a dystopia; Sandra Newman, in The Country of Ice Cream Star, has created a vibrant, astoundingly hopeful world (perfect for fans of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild).
In this future United States, the remaining human population consists of solely black children, who only survive until they’re eighteen, if they’re lucky, due to a devastating sickness called ‘posies’, which starts to affect people when they reach their late teens. Out of this apocalyptic setting, societies have formed in and around the forested wilderness and the ruined cities of the former East Coast of the United States. The woods is where readers find their hero – a young teen named Ice Cream Star who lives in Massa Woods, leading her people, the Sengle, under her brother Driver’s command. When the ageing Driver becomes sick, Ice must find a way to make sure he, as well as her people, survive.
This powerful premise is surpassed only by its even stronger protagonist. Ice is impulsive, brash but never selfish or cruel. She is strong, resourceful and intelligent, shrewd enough to decipher other people’s shady intentions and brave enough to know when to run and when to fight. Fiction – whether sci-fi, fantasy, young adult or adult drama – needs more characters like Ice Cream Star.
However, the story is not just about Ice Cream, but the continuation of a civilization following catastrophe. Beyond Ice’s tribe of Sengles, new groups are gradually introduced to readers: what begins as a story of small warring communities soon becomes something far bigger, with cities and even nations brought into battle with each other. Newman’s future world is one of warfare and war crimes, and most startling of all is that the perpetrators are children – children raised by children. Considering that the book basically posits a world where history is forgotten or rewritten due to the brevity of lifespans, it is interesting that one of the things that does still exist is knowledge of fighting and weaponry. However innocent society becomes, wrongdoing and the will to survive still tend to go hand in hand.
This examination of the war between the bad and the good inherent in people becomes apparent when another character appears, Ice Cream’s ‘roo’, a white man called Pasha who the Sengles’ discover hiding in their territory: a mystery man who could hold the key to survival.
‘I be small in all this blackness world . . . I know my truth. I know, ain’t evils in no life nor cruelties in no red hell can change the vally heart of Ice Cream Star.’
Besides the compelling story, the writing itself is wonderful. The language – a dialect mish-mash of English, Spanish and oddly chopped up words – is excitingly stylised, yet it sounds familiar despite its obvious peculiarities. Reading this book involves learning a new way to read and interpret language, yet it never becomes confused thanks to Sandra Newman’s genius for clarity and poetic, lyrical sentences. The language isn’t incongruous with the story, but woven into the fabric of it so it reads and sounds entirely natural, even though it may be ‘prettieuse bizarre’. You may even find yourself thinking and speaking like the characters (taking it from my own experience).
Ice Cream Star is a spectacular book, never less than completely engaging to read. Sandra Newman has created a riveting novel and a highly intriguing work of fiction. The only criticism is that it ends far too soon, with certain questions and loose ends left dangling. Don’t let that detract from the book’s merits though. Like I said before, Newman’s world isn’t a dystopia, it’s one of hope. The unique voice Newman creates is enchanting; there is something magical about Ice Cream and her presence on the page. It is the sort of book that makes you wish you could write with such grace and confidence, although you’ll happily settle for being the reader here. Regardless of the hardback’s hefty size, you’ll want to lug this one around with you everywhere to ensure your reading goes uninterrupted.