Book Review: Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis (2013)

January 29th, 2014 11:33 am by Kelly Garbato

A stunning debut!

five out of five stars

Caution: minor spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape.

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

More than just two lines dreamed up by a long-dead poet, this mantra rules sixteen-year-old Lynn’s life. Born into a world in which fresh, potable water is a scarcity, Lynn and Mother (less commonly known as “Lauren”) guard their pond as though their lives depend on it – because they do. Daily tasks revolve around gathering water, purifying water, storing water, and guarding water from threats both real and imagined. Anyone, human or non, who ventures too close to the pond is shot on sight. If they’re lucky, they get a warning shot first. When not performing daily chores, Lynn and Mother while away their time on the roof, a strategic vantage point from which to spot and discourage intruders.

For more than a decade and a half, Lynn’s life is confined to this small universe: the pond, the roof, and the basement. Mother is her only companion, and aside from the one time their neighbor Stebbs nearly lost a foot in a bear trap and sought Lauren’s help, Lynns hasn’t spoken to another soul. That is, until the fateful fall day when Mother is killed by a pack of especially bold coyotes. Though she attempts to carry on the way Mother taught her, Lynn finds herself sucked into local affairs by Stebbs. Stebbs has something Mother could never afford – a conscience – and he enlists Lynn’s assistance in helping the “Streamers,” a group of expats from the city of Entargo who set up camp upstream from Lynn and Stebbs.

A dearth of fresh water is only one of their problems, as the group will soon discover; more dangerous than the threat of cholera are the men to the south, who make due by looting abandoned houses, stealing from fellow survivors, and kidnapping, enslaving, and raping/prostituting women. They run a trading post in the nearby city of South Bloomfield, where a gallon of gas will get you a half hour with one of their sex slaves, and women can barter their bodies for milk with which to feed their starving children (stolen from the exploited body of a dairy cow, whose own child remains conspicuously absent). When the group attempted to raid Lynn’s house, she and Mother shot several of them dead. Now that Mother is gone, it’s up to Lynn to solve the Southie problem for good.

A stunning debut novel by Mindy McGinnis, Not a Drop to Drink is reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Robert C. O’Brien’s 1976 novel Z for Zachariah. Though the details are quite different, Not a Drop to Drink evokes the creepy, isolated, desolate feel of Z for Zachariah – even as we know for a fact that Lynn is not the last person on earth, as Ann believes herself to be (at least until the arrival of the mysterious and demanding stranger in her valley paradise). Whereas Ann’s first contact with another human turns out to be disastrous, Lynn’s new friends accept and love her for who she is (socially awkward sharpshooter – can I get a new meme up in here?), even as they attempt to introduce her to new ways of seeing the world. Ultimately, both novels end on a hopeful note; whereas Ann decides to abandon her Eden in search of others, Lynn welcomes new immigrants to her neck of the woods in a way that Mother never would.

As Lynn expands her circle of compassion and embraces her new, adopted family of ragtag survivors who share a bond not of blood, but of similar hardships, Lynn’s journey resembles that of Katniss Everdeen. Sweet, gentle, artistic Eli is Peeta; Stebbs, a more agreeable (but no less practical) Haymitch; and Lucy is a stand-in for Rue, Prim, and all the children of Panem, would-be sacrificial lambs to those more powerful than they. (Both a douser and a young female, Lucy would make for an especially valuable prisoner.) Lynn is very much Katniss’s literary sister: strong and uber-capable, Lynn is forced to focus on survival to the exception of all else. Lacking even Katniss’s meager socialization, Lynn is stubborn, brusque, and not a little rude. She’s never heard music, and doesn’t joke around. Laughter and snowball fights are foreign to her. There’s no one in the world she cares about but Mother; and after Mother dies, there’s only the pond. That is, until Stebbs worms his way onto her property – and Lucy and Eli, into her heart.

In contrast to the catatonically depressed Mrs. Everdeen, Lauren deals with her husband’s presumed death by becoming hard and self-sufficient, almost to a fault. She teaches her daughter that all people – but especially men – are a threat. Those who wander onto their property might, at best, steal or contaminate their water; worst case, they’ll kill you, but not before making you wish for death first. Upon preparing for a confrontation with the men from the south, Lauren tells her daughter:

“There’s things I haven’t told you,” Mother said quietly, eyes averted from Lynn’s face. “Now isn’t the time; I don’t want you distracted. Just know that there’s bad men in the world, and dying fast by your mother is a better way than theirs.”

If your first impression of Lauren is that she’s a misandrist, I’d have to say that I agree. But her distrust and dislike of men is neither misplaced nor unhealthy, particularly when viewed in context. Rape is a rather common theme in dystopian fiction, and while disturbing, it’s often quite believable (which, in turn, makes it all the more disturbing). When society goes to hell, it’s almost inevitable that the men who claw their way to the top will oppress and exploit those below them – women included. The presence of an apocalypse isn’t even necessary; look no further than the rape culture of today. Mother’s misandry is a survival strategy, and an effective one at that – as a new mother, she managed to protect herself, her daughter, and her property for more than a decade and a half (before being killed in a coyote attack, of all things. Arguably it was her mercy for Big Bastard that did her in.)

Nor is Lauren alone in her distrust of men; even with his fancy conscience and pricey regrets, Stebbs seems to exhibit his own misandrist streak at times, fearing for Lucy’s safety as a female and urging Lynn to “fire away” should the men from the south approach her property again.

While a blanket ban on helping any intruders might seem a bit extreme, in Mother’s defense, it’s nearly impossible to judge which of them might pose a real threat…without allowing them close enough to get the drop on her. And trespassers needn’t harbor ill will for them to pose a threat; take, for example, one thirsty traveler who begged a drink from Mother’s pond, all the while swearing that he, unlike his companions, was not infected with cholera:

He’d begged for water, pleading that he was not ill like the others and would not contaminate the pond. Mother had refused and sent him off with a warning. Hours later he was back, shit streaking his legs and begging for a bullet instead. This time, Mother granted his request.

While considering the ethics of Lauren’s actions, I was reminded of a post that recently made its way around tumblr: “If I’m attacked by a dog and subsequently develop a fear of all dogs, no one thinks much of it. But if I’m attacked by a man and develop a fear of men, I’m horrible and a misandrist and how dare I oppress men this way.” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.) While Lauren’s fears might seem irrational to some readers, they’re less so when viewed in the context of her world: women are routinely kidnapped, bought, sold, traded, and violated by men. Not all of them – Stebbs and Eli are proof of that – but enough men that distrusting them all (at least initially) is not just prudent, but necessary to survival.

Not a Drop to Drink is a deceptively quick read that sucks you in from the very first pages and moves at a steady clip. The character deaths are swift, unexpected, and unsentimental. This is definitely one of my favorites of 2013.

First line: “Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond, the sweet smell of water luring the man to be picked off like the barn swallows that dared to swoop in for a drink.”

Favorite line: “She left him holding his intestines in disbelief as she disappeared down the hill, his gun tucked securely in her waistband.” (page 297)

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

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Book Review: Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis (2013)”

  1. End of Year Book Survey – 2014 Edition! » vegan daemon Says:

    […] Best Book You Read In 2014?: That’s a hard one, but imma go with Not A Drop to Drink, by Mindy McGinnis. It was my gift to myself last Christmas, and hoo boy how do I spoil myself […]

Leave a Reply