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“The Handmaid’s Tale” Meets “Never Let Me Go” in YA


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The Chaperone by M Hendrix

What’s it About?

Girls in New America must have a chaperone with them at all times. Once Stella glimpses both real freedom and the dark truths behind New America, she has no choice but to fight back against the world she knows, risking everything to set out on a dangerous journey.

The Chaperone is a brilliantly conceived, provocative and finely crafted YA novel written by M Hendrix (Sourcebooks Fire). It just might be one of the year’s best books written in this genre and one quite likely to be banned in Florida. She has envisioned a frightening dystopian world set in present-day New America some 14 years after it splintered off from the United States of America. Cities and towns have been renamed after significant sites and locales made famous during the Civil War. 

Reinventing The World as We Know It

Stella Graham, age 17, the protagonist and narrator, now a senior at the elite Bull Run Prep, was a toddler when the upheaval occurred. Her hometown of Bowling Green was renamed Bull Run honoring the Confederate victories at the First and Second Battles of Manassas. She shares with the reader her shaky knowledge of the true history of the country, not as taught to students, along with her hopes, fears, and growing realizations about the inequality and limited options for women in this harsh dictatorship. 

What emerged from years of progressively inflamed power struggles resulted in the separation of the union into the dominant neo-fascistic country called New America and what their leaders, the Minutemen Party, dismiss as “Old America”. The Minutemen have absolute control of everything including the prime minister, military constables, the police and the top three branches of government; liberty, purity and security. Democracy has been rejected in favor of a top-down, elitist hierarchical form of government. High moral values, marriage and family are to be strictly protected and preserved. LBGTQ people are deviants with no rights under the law.   

The role of women could easily be defined by the Nazi Germany motto of “Kinder, Küche, Kirche”, translating to “children, kitchen and church”. However, German women in the Third Reich received better educations and retained more rights and freedoms than the women of New America. 

They are forbidden involvement in politics and all professions are barred to them. There are no female doctors, attorneys, educators, scientists, skilled workers or business executives. Women are not even permitted to drive. After the first years of elementary school, boys and girls are taught separately. The girls learn to care for babies and children, to cook and care for a household and may elect to take music or ballet classes.

The boys receive a more comprehensive though extremely skewed rightwing education and encouraged to attend a college of their choice. Girls may apply to the government to attend college but are seldom granted permission, and even when they are the courses, as in high school, are primarily designed to make them better wives and mothers. Outside of these roles the only jobs available to women are that of servants, childminders, factory workers and chaperones. 

Girls Must Be Accompanied at All Times

Girls are never alone in New America. By law, “Adolescent girls are required to have a government-assigned chaperone”. Their mothers must immediately submit a report to the constables when their daughters have their first periods and are then considered to be women. From this time forward, they can no longer be alone with a boy or man including their father until they are married and then only with their husband. Touching by males was also forbidden including hugs or a reassuring pat on the back by one’s dad.

If a family cannot afford a private chaperone, their child is sent to a government school. There are clear class distinctions. Stella is among the most privileged elite; a member of the highest echelon as her father is the president of the largest auto manufacturer in the country, the Corvette Manufacturing Company. It split from General Motors and instead of iconic sports cars makes all sorts of vehicles including trucks and ultra-fast bright red SUVs for the constabulary.

The family lives in a large, luxurious and well-tended home complete with a live-in cook/housekeeper and someone to do regular yard maintenance. Her mom, Mary Beth, was a stunningly beautiful college coed when she met her future husband, Mitchell Graham, and has maintained her trim figure and lovely countenance despite giving birth to two daughters. She spends most of her time with Stella’s six-year-old sister Shea and is a dutiful, obedient wife and gracious hostess.

Rebellion Grows with the Help of a Chaperone

Chaperones often arrive the same day a report is filed and remain with their assigned charge until her 18th birthday signifying marriageability. Stella was almost 12 when Sister Helen was assigned and 17 when she died suddenly under suspicious circumstances. For six years, she had been her constant companion and confidant.

Despite her relatively advanced age, about 60 when she died, Sister Helen taught and practiced yoga with Stella and often went on 10-15 mile rigorous hikes. She subversively encouraged her charge to read objectively by bringing her banned books which they concealed under different covers. Following Sister Helen’s death, the new chaperone is a younger woman named Sister Laura.

Despite Stella’s concern she could be a spy and tool of the government who reports back on the family, Sister Laura proves to be unusually outspoken and even more radical than her predecessor. Banned books continue to be read and discussed.  Stella is pushed to learn self-defense martial arts and to accompany her father on his strenuous daily runs as well as cautiously to be alone. Teens do not date nor are the sexes allowed to socialize without direct supervision.

Chaperones are present during formal “Visitations”. A boy or man applies to the proper government agency for a brief visit to occur on a specified Sunday after church with the object to determine marriage suitability. Stella becomes alarmed when Constable Joe Clarke whom she suspects of being one of the more vicious Minutemen becomes a regular visitor. 

“Like every young woman in New America, Stella knows the rules: Deflect attention. Abstain from sin. Navigate the world with care. Give obedience. Embrace purity. Respect your chaperone.” It’s akin to the FLDS sect (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) motto: “Keep Sweet”.

Stella Graham is an anomaly in New America; highly intelligent, intellectually curious and an independent thinker with a desire to become a serious student. Sister Helen’s problematic death served as a catalyst for her to ask forbidden questions. She begins to realize that under the nun-like white caftan habits of chaperones may be daring guides illuminating a path of resistance and self-determination. The Chaperone swiftly builds from a riveting tale of a nightmarish society into a white-knuckled, fast-paced and potentially deadly thriller. After the opening sentence, it’s hard to put down and I highly recommend this book.

Re-Establishing M Hendrix as a Must-Watch Writer

M Hendrix is the pseudonym of an established author. You may be unfamiliar with the name but won’t be for long. Without revealing her identity, it can be confirmed she has earned a doctorate, taught English courses at a university, and writes as a freelance journalist, blogger and editor. Her first book of short stories included an entertaining titular tale about surviving graduate school. 

The second was a poignant, thought-provoking memoir about her search and discovery of her birth mother who gave her up for adoption and the abiding love and gratitude for the exceptional parents who adopted her at seven weeks of age. Her husband of more than two decades is a New York Times best-selling author and tenured professor. For additional information about the author and her work, please visit her website.

The Chaperone is M Hendrix’s exceptional first novel for young adults but I can attest you don’t have to be a teenager to appreciate and love this book. The characters and action are so vividly imagined and written that reading it is virtually like watching a film. It would in fact make a fine movie or television mini-series. It may serve as a warning beacon for extreme overreaction to social and political divisiveness.  Readers of Andrew McCarten, Emily St. John Mandel and Margaret Atwood are sure to laud this work. Without hyperbole, M Hendrix may be the S.E. Hinton or Judy Blume for the 21st century.

About M Hendrix:

M earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Indiana University before studying literature and creative writing in graduate school, receiving her master’s degree from Miami University and her doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, where she was a Taft Fellow. She has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize and was shortlisted for the Aesthetica creative writing award. She is represented by John Cusick of Folio Literary. She is also the author of two previous books. For a complete list of publications, click here.

Born in Baltimore and raised in New Jersey, she is an adoptee who has lived in twelve states and now makes her home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with her husband, New York Times bestselling author David BellThe Chaperone is her first novel.

 

Publish Date: June 6, 2023

Genre: Suspense, Thrillers, Young Adult

Author: M Hendrix

Page Count: 448 pages

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

ISBN: 9781728260006

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