V. Arrow is the Fangirl on Fire!
Witty, insightful, passionate, engaging, highly readable and with keen attention to detail: V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion is all of this and more. I usually enjoy the stuff that Smart Pop puts out, but they’ve really outdone themselves this time! Arrow approaches The Hunger Games trilogy with the unabashed enthusiasm of a true fan and the critical eye of an academic, resulting in a guide that’s everything I wanted – and more.
In fifteen chapters, Arrow covers a wide range of topics – from gender roles to race and class to culpability for war crimes, not to mention all sorts of wacky fan theories:
1 – Mapping Panem – Drawing on canon, textual clues, and scientific predictions about the effects of climate change, Arrow (with a little help from “geek friend” Meg) posits a likely map of Panem. The maps are printed on glossy, full-color paper, which I appreciate – but owing to the small size of the paperback, it’s also a bit difficult to make out the details. This was the only chapter that didn’t fully hold my attention, but I suspect that’s because I’m not a very visual thinker and had trouble picturing the geographic changes. Still, the map is integral to some of the later discussions (such as race, class, and immigration), so don’t skip it!
2 – How Panem Came to Be – Using modern history as a guide, Arrow considers how the dystopian society of Panem might have risen from the post-apocalyptic ashes of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
3 – Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem – This is the discussion that THG fans – rightfully upset over the whitewashing of the film(s) – have been waiting for! Arrow presents a cohesive, convincing argument that Katniss (and her fellow Seam residents) are, if not persons of color as we understand the term, then most definitely “not white”; “other” – at least on Panem’s terms. Taking care to distinguish between race and ethnicity, Arrow examines how race and class intersect to create a society divided into multiple levels of “haves” and “have nots.” She also addresses the fan theory that Katniss has Native American or Melungeon roots.
4 – The Socioeconomics of Tesserae – In a chapter that can be seen as an extension of “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem,” Arrow examines the ways in which the tesserae system – which disproportionately affects the poorest of Panem’s citizens – deepens race, class, and culture divisions. In addition to providing an awesome show of the Capitol’s power and brutality, The Hunger Games also help to quash rebellious leanings by pitting members of the working class against the merchants.
5 – The Curious Case of Primrose “Everdeen” – Is Prim really Mr. Mellark’s daughter? Probably not, but Arrow has fun entertaining this fan theory anyway!
6 – Family Life in Panem – The author looks to the Everdeens, the Mellarks, the Hawthornes, and the Undersees to provide four sharply contrasting examples of family life in Panem. Whereas the baker’s son suffers horrific physical and mental abuse at the hands of his mother – and even the Mayor’s family isn’t immune to tragedy – it becomes evident that even the most well-off in the districts still remain victims of the Capitol.
7 – The Games as Exploitation, Exploitation as Entertainment – Familiar to even the most casual THG fans is the series’ critique of reality television and exploitative media culture. Even so, Arrow manages to provide a fresh take on this oft-discussed topic, including a deeper (and more disturbing) examination of present-day reality tv.
8 – Gender Roles and Sexuality in Panem – As with the chapters on race and class, this one’s worth an especially close read. Arrow repudiates the characterization of THG as a “romance” featuring a “love triangle” between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, quoting the woman herself to drive her point home: “I really can’t think about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite!” She also talks about gender roles and reversals of such, most notably between Katniss and Peeta.
Perhaps most significantly, she addresses the tragic case of Finnick Odair. As a Victor, Finnick was coerced into sexual slavery by President Snow and routinely raped by prominent Capitol citizens. Forced to play along to protect what remained of his family – namely, loved one Annie and mentor Mags – Finnick outwardly projects the image of a “hedonistic sexual being,” in Arrow’s words. Disturbingly, Finnick has been described as a “sexy playboy” and characterized as a happy, willing prostitute by many in the media (and worse, fandom), despite his lack of consent. Et tu with the victim blaming, THG fans?
9 – District 4 – Through Finnick and Annie, Katniss (and the reader) learns a bit about District 4 culture, including the ways in which it differs from that of District 12. In the absence of contact with one another, the various districts would have developed their own unique cultural practices and mores – further isolating them from potential allies against the Capitol.
Additionally, Arrow presents an impassioned defense of Annie Cresta as a Victor every bit as worthy of respect and honor as Katniss, Peeta, Finnick, and the rest. Though she’s often dismissed as “weak” or “crazy,” Annie is a woman who suffered the loss of her family, possibly at Snow’s hands; survived The Hunger Games when 23 of her peers did not; was forced to stand by as her lover was sexually exploited, perhaps to spare her own life; and withstood torture (possibly of a sexual nature) during the Second Rebellion. After all this, she still found the courage and optimism to bring a new life into this world. Frail she is not.
Related to the dismissal of Annie is her mental disability and/or neurotypicality. While nearly all of the Victors suffer from PTSD, depression, and related disorders, Arrow considers the possibility that Annie has a condition that predates the Games – most likely autism, but perhaps schizophrenia or OCD.
10 – Mythology and Music in Panem – The character arcs of Katniss and Finnick mirror certain Greek myths – most famously, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur (in Katniss’s case), and Odysseus’s journey in the Odyssey and the Iliad (Finnick; though he’s a much kinder, cuddlier hero than that jerkface Odysseus). Evocative of antebellum “slave songs,” American folk music is also important to the story; Arrow traces the possible roots of “The Hanging Tree” to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and “Darling Nelly Gray.”
11 – District 11 – Because we experience the story through Katniss’s eyes, our view of districts outside of Twelve are mostly lacking. During the Victory Tour, however, we do get a good look at District 11, which is populated primarily by (unambiguously) black agricultural workers. From the Peacekeepers’ strict enforcement of the rules to the citizens’ inhumane living and working conditions, allusions to slavery abound in District 11.
12 – The Architects of the Rebellion – Haymitch Abernathy, Plutarch Heavensbee, Seneca Crane, Cinna, Mr. Everdeen, Madge Undersee, or (perhaps most surprisingly) Mags – who was the mastermind behind the Second Rebellion? Mostly likely a mix of happenstance and design – with all of the above playing a role – Arrow nonetheless gives each fan favorite her consideration.
13 – Truly, My Name is Cinna – Seemingly an outsider in the Capitol, Arrow contemplates Cinna’s ancestry: might he have been born in one of the Districts? If so, was he an artist first and a rebel second – or vice versa? Were he and Finnick really lovers? (This fan theory is new to me, but I definitely ship it.)
14 – District 13 and the Capitol: Two Sides of the Same “Coin”: Delving deeper than the obvious comparisons between Presidents Snow and Coin, Arrow questions District 13’s culpability in allowing The Hunger Games to continue. She also draws parallels between other District 13/Capitol counterparts, including Boggs/Cinna, Cressida/Caesar Flickerman, and Katniss’s Prep Team/The Avoxes.
15 – Accountability for Acts of War in the Hunger Games – Assuming that Gale (and Beetee – you can’t forget dear, lovable Beetee!) built the technology that killed Prim, is he ultimately responsible for her death? Or does sole blame lie at Snow’s feet? What about the Career Tributes – to what extent, if any, are they victims of the Capitol, when they so eagerly volunteered to “serve” their country?
Also included is a comprehensive, 44-page lexicon of names. Though it’s impossible to tell at a glance whether Arrow includes every character that appears in the series, all of the major (and many of the minor) players are accounted for.
The Panem Companion is a true gem: exhaustively researched and documented, it’s an academic text that’s just as suitable for lay fans. Arrow is fastidious in her research, and diligently distinguishes cannon from informed inferences and fan theories. While you may not agree with all of her conclusions, Arrow never tries to pull a fast one by stretching the facts to support her interpretation of the text.
I also love, love, love Arrow’s focus on race, ethnicity, class, and socioeconomics. Initially excited to see that she’d devoted an entire chapter to the discussion of race, you can imagine my (happy) shock when I found that race isn’t limited to just one chapter, but pops up throughout the book. Yay intersectionality!
Likewise, I’m thrilled that she correctly identifies Finnick for what he is – a rape survivor – when so many readers would rather label him a sexpot. That’s rape culture for you.
In fact, there’s only one plot point I wanted to see Arrow address that did not come to pass: Peeta’s nagging (resulting in a decades-long campaign) Katniss to have a baby, despite her sustained objections:
“It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree. But Peeta wanted them so badly. When I first felt her stirring inside of me, I was consumed with a terror that felt as old as life itself. Only the joy of holding her in my arms could tame it. Carrying him was a little easier, but not much.”
His seeming disrespect for her bodily autonomy is disturbing, to say the least – though I’ve encountered few objections to this online.
I’ve read a few books on The Hunger Games trilogy thus far – both the original and updated movie 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 Panem Companion blows them all out of the water. Honestly, I cannot recommend it highly enough. V. Arrow gets ALL the stars!