Harold Ogle's Reviews > Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
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's review
Mar 02, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: ya, fantasy, giant-bugs

** spoiler alert ** Suzanne Collins' first published book, Gregor the Overlander is enjoyable, though some aspects stretched belief beyond what I could manage to suspend. This edition, like the copy of A Wrinkle in Time that I'd read just before it, contains an Appendix of Q&A with the author, in which she talks about why/how she came up with the story. Essentially, she was disgruntled that Alice in Wonderland was as pastoral as it is: she couldn't relate and felt kids in the US couldn't relate to having tea parties in the countryside, chasing rabbits through hedges, and the like. So she writes from the perspective of kids living in New York City.

An aside: personally, as with The Lightning Thief, I think that stories set in New York City are harder for audiences to relate to than just about any other setting...unless you're a book publisher, of course, in which case you live near and work in New York City. That, I think, is why so many children's and YA books get published that are set in New York City, which is an extremely particular and specialized setting that most people in the country, let alone the world, have any ability to relate. It always, to me, feels like pandering to the publisher, rather than an attempt to convey the American experience.

Back to this book, though. Gregor, an 11-year-old boy (of course) whose father abandoned the family years ago (of course), is doing laundry while watching his toddler sister, when she slips through a vent in the wall. He goes to help her out and falls in himself, dropping miles over the course of a minutes-long plummet. They are spared from making a crater at the bottom by a mysterious updraft that slows them to a gentle stop at the floor of a tunnel, where they immediately encounter giant talking cockroaches. It's a departure from the Alice in Wonderland template that there isn't more of a transition between the normal world and the Underland; Alice had a lot of weird experiences that built up toward a succession of talking animals, which gradually built the sense that she was in a different reality. With Gregor and his sister, they fall down the hole, but then - bam! - they're talking to animals. Nothing else magical happens to indicate that the laws of reality are being suspended. Still, realizing that Collins is re-writing Alice in Wonderland actually helps me accept a lot of the book, despite problems I had.

Which brings me to the biggest problem I had with the book - aside from its typical, following A Wrinkle in Time YA book template - the kids do not react realistically to the things they encounter. This is made worse by not having a magical transition (no "eat me"/"drink me" sequence to hammer home the fantastic surreality of the setting). I don't care how blase you are about vermin in your home or on the street, if you, a person, anybody, came in contact with a giant insect, you wouldn't even have time to be amazed that it could talk before you'd scream in terror or commence blubbering in revolted horror. There is something universally alien and horrific about bugs to people, and this would only be magnified by encountering one bigger than you: the ceaseless creaking, crackling of the exoskeleton, the lack of pupiled eyes, the horrible mouth parts that never stop moving, the way that they touch things - including you - with feelers to sense you better, the inhuman bursts of speed and feats of strength...on and on. Not only do Gregor and his sister not collapse into gibbering puddles or scrape their fingers raw trying to escape up the rock walls, they don't have any negative reaction at all. It's essentially "Oh, a talking bug! Hm. Haven't' seen that before." Not only that, but Gregor and his sister are more comfortable with the giant cockroaches than the native humans who live in the Underland and have known Crawlers (local term for the giant bugs) their whole lives. There are other talking animals down here, too: giant spiders, giant bats, and giant rats. The only concession Collins makes to the alien-ness of these creatures is some revulsion Gregor feels when one of the spiders eats a recently-deceased spider companion. The casual cannibalism bothers him as nothing else does before or after, to the point that he has to turn his head and look away. But he still befriends both that spider and several giant bats, to the point that their natures are not brought up most of the time as they travel together. They're just other members of the party, on a quest. Even Tolkein differentiated the members of the Fellowship better, and they were all bipedal humanoids!

There's a lot of missed opportunity here: Gregor is part of a prophecy (of course), and so he sets off with a contingent of representatives from each race to fulfill the prophecy and rescue his dad (of course). So, unlike Alice in Wonderland, Gregor travels with a bunch of the strange talking creatures he encounters, rather than moving from one weird vignette to another. So the spider is probably crawling along the walls and ceiling as much as the floor, and who knows how the bats are walking along - Collins doesn't go into any of that. The party is joined by a rat who has deserted the main enemy army of rats. Collins spends relatively a lot of space describing how awful and frightening the rats are. That's right: in a world of giant monster animals, the one that's closest to human is the most horrifying. That may actually have been intentional on Collins' part, a subtle dig against humanity and land-based mammals, or it may just be that she personally is more revolted by rats than the things that would really be at least as awful when encountered giant-size. You know, more alien things, like bugs.

Gregor is also a pacifist to the extent that he won't fight when threatened, which, in my experience of boys - particularly ones from single-parent homes, but really all of them - is also pretty hard to believe. He's repeatedly presented with alarming situations in which he can easily resort to simple violence to protect himself or his sister, but he doesn't. The Q&A Appendix gives some insight into this, as well: Collins has written the Underland Chronicles (of which this is the first book) as a series of treatises on different aspects of war. So she's trying to convey a Message about conflict, and this Message trumps any more believable character motivations. But it has to be said that it then feels really random when he does react strongly at one instance of a threat to his sister. Why does he blow up then, and not before or after?

That said, Gregor is pretty mercurial overall, which I'm also sensing is a theme in many modern YA books. It was consistent in When the Tripods Came, but all the other YA books I've read this year have, along with Gregor the Overlander, had their pre-teen protagonists running hot or cold, happy or furiously angry, cracking a joke or screaming in outrage, from one moment to the next, seemingly subservient not to any character motivation/backstory, but just the needs of the plot. "Here Gregor needs to be mad at Henry, even though he liked him on the previous page, so...he'll be mad." Yes, kids can be temperamental, and yes, kids from single-parent homes (like all the kids in every YA book ever written, apparently) can have impulse-control issues, but it still doesn't feel real in these books, including Gregor the Overlander. Luckily, in Gregor's case at least, the major action of the story is not dependent on his getting angry or sad at any particular point, so it's more window-dressing and thus more easily dismissed.

If you can manage to ignore these shortcomings - the unrealism of the character behavior in particular - and just accept as given 'there's a bunch of talking animals, everybody accepts that, and they're on a quest,' then the rest of the story is actually pretty good. Gregor has to rescue his dad, he has to wrestle with the struggle between fatalism and hope, and he has to learn to stand on his own two feet and be confident in his own independence, rather than always subserviently relying on others. These are all good issues for any book, even a YA one, and they're pretty well realized in the context of such an action-packed story. I must say that I also liked the end, which was very filmic in its final moment: Gregor has returned successfully with his sibling and father, to the apartment where his mother has been worried sick at everyone's disappearance. Unsure how to announce his presence or break through her obvious grief, he waffles for a bit outside of the kitchen where she sits, weeping, and then simply steps in and says "Hi, mom. I'm home." and the book ends. Very, very nicely done.

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