Book Review: Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012)

January 23rd, 2013 1:06 pm by Kelly Garbato

The Cliffs Notes to Symbolism in THG

four out of five stars

“As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.”

Names carry great significance in The Hunger Games trilogy. Residents of the Capitol and its favored districts are commonly given Roman names (Cato, Cinna, Plutarch, Enobaria), establishing a parallel with the rise and fall of a brutal empire, while those living in the districts are named after food (Katniss, Peeta), plants (Rue, Prim, Posy), and other natural forces (Gale, Annie Cresta), as well as their work – their district’s specialty (Thrush, Chaff, Wiress). Even the name of the country evokes images of ancient Rome: “Panem” comes from the Latin phrase “Panem et Circenses” – bread and circuses to entertain and distract the masses.

When one considers the cultural and historical context of each given and/or surname – particularly in relation to the character’s story arc in The Hunger Games – it becomes obvious that author Suzanne Collins chose many of these names with great care and attention to detail. (In this vein, I can’t help but laugh at those reviewers who complain that Frankel is reading “too much into” the names and symbols found in The Hunger Games. That’s kind of the point! Plus, it’s just plain fun.)

In Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel – whose other 2012 release, Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, I recently had the pleasure of reviewing through Library Thing – provides a kind of “Cliffs Notes” guide to the numerous names and symbols found in The Hunger Games. The book is divided into two sections: The Names of Panem (roughly 49 pages in length) and Symbols/Allusions to Literature and Life (21 pages). Frankel draws on a number of subjects to give greater context to the names and symbols of THG: history (especially military and Roman), literature (with Shakespeare receiving the lion’s share of attention), botany, linguistics, and religion and mythology, to name a few.

Obviously, The Names of Panem is lengthier and more detailed than Symbols/Allusions. While it’s difficult to tell from memory whether Frankel lists ALL the names found in The Hunger Games, certainly she includes MOST of them, from the “Big Three” (Katniss, Peeta, Gale), all the way down to relatively minor players (Gale’s miner friend Thom; the “goat man” from whom Prim purchases Lady). Even those names with little apparent meaning (Rory) make the cut. As such, this section also makes a handy reference guide to the many characters who appear in the trilogy.

Symbols and Allusions briefly touches upon a number of topics, many of which deserve a much lengthier discussion. Among the symbols discussed are bows and arrows; bread; dandelions; ducks; food; fire (The Girl who was on Fire); “The Hanging Tree”; Holo and Logbooks; The Hunger Games; Mockingjays; Mutts; Nightlock; Pearls; Roses; and Snakes. Allusions includes Dystopia; History; Mythology; Reality Television; Rome; and Shakespeare.

An in-depth discussion of allusions is perhaps beyond the scope of such a book, and Frankel would have been better served to omit this section and instead focus more on names and symbols. For as detailed as The Names of Panem is at times, some of the entries seem oddly incomplete. Take, for example, this brief paragraph about the morphlings:

“The unnamed drugged-out District Six Tributes in the Quarter Quell. Since they have ‘morphed,’ or changed, into shells of their formerly heroic selves, they suggest pitiful, helpless victims of the war just like the Avoxes.”

Upon hearing the slang name for these addicts, I immediately thought of the narcotic morphine. Used as a pain reliever and sedative, the drug was named after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams. With both medicinal and recreational uses, it stands to reason that morphine (or its Panem-day version) is one of the drugs manufactured in District Six. Since we know from Katniss that pharmaceuticals are a rare luxury in the districts, the possibility that Capitol citizens may be abusing the drug – wasting it when those in pain go without – is yet another affront to the impoverished residents of Panem (and is reminiscent of the “binge parties” encountered by Katniss and Peeta).

Some Amazon reviewers have complained about the accuracy of the information, starting with the title: Katniss and Cattails are two entirely different plants. While true, I took this as Frankel’s attempt at a clever, aurally pleasing title; the entry for Katniss doesn’t mention cattails at all. Other criticisms focus on pieces of literature with which I’m not familiar (e.g. Far from the Madding Crowd), so I can’t comment either way.

For what it is – a short, relatively inexpensive guide – Katniss the Cattail is enjoyable enough. You can read it straight through or use it as a reference guide; at the very least, it provides a nice starting point for further research. Hardcore fans (of which I am one!) are likely the key audience.

At the same time I was reading Katniss the Cattail, I was also working my way through V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion. While the two are different enough that a direct comparison would be unfair*, I highly recommend the latter to fans (both casual and obsessive) who want a more comprehensive discussion of the themes found in The Hunger Games. For what it’s worth, it also contains a (44-page) lexicon of Panem names. Both Frankel and Arrow’s versions include enough unique material that serious fans will want to pick up a copy of each.

* Though I did bristle at Frankel’s characterization of Annie as “helpless”; one whose strength is “loving and emotional” – in direct contrast to Johanna, whose power is “hard and physical” (pages 47-48) – after reading Arrow’s impassioned defense of Annie as a survivor whose strength is too often overlooked due to her mental and/or cognitive disabilities (and even as PTSD and depression aren’t used to undermine the other Victors, including Katniss herself). After all, this is a woman who lost her entire family, possibly as retribution for something she did or failed to do; who survived The Hunger Games when 23 of her peers could not; who had to stand by and watch as someone she loved was sexually trafficked by President Snow; and who withstood torture (possibly of a sexual nature) during the Second Rebellion – and yet still managed to sustain the hope, courage, and optimism to bear a child in the midst of such suffering and carnage.

(This review is also posted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012)”

  1. Book Review: The Panem Companion, V. Arrow (2012) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] editions of The Girl Who Was on Fire (also published by Smart Pop), Valerie Estelle Frankel’s Katniss the Cattail, and Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games, edited by Mary Pharr and Leisa A. Clark – but The […]

  2. Book Review: The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2013) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] with the work of Valerie Estelle Frankel: in addition to a short guide to The Hunger Games (Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger…), Frankel also contributed an essay to the 2012 anthology, Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: […]

  3. fuck yeah reading: 2013 books » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012); reviewed here […]

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