Book Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star, Sandra Newman (2015)

April 3rd, 2015 12:00 pm by Kelly Garbato

You Reading. Is Bone.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Major trigger warning for rape, human trafficking, forced abortion and sterilization, violence, and scenes of war.)

These be the Sengles in the time I speak of, when my trouble grown. Of baby children, be Bother Zero Tool, the Answer Zero Ka, Fine One Ndiaye, Bell Eyes One Ndiaye, and Lolina-tina One Diouf, Crow’s child with Mari’s Ghost. Be healthy screaming babies, they got grandy rolls of fat. These all got mothers living but the twins Bell Eyes and Fine.

Of littles, there be Dinty Moore Two Fall who cannot hear, Naomi Two Forgotten, Maple Two Diop who be a son of John of Christ, Mohammed Three Insulting, Story Four Duval that has got reddish hair, Problem Four Tool, Luvanna-Lana Five of Lowell, Best Creature Five Wang who is misname and be annoying, Mustapha Five Insulting, Dollar Saver Six Fall, a fine enchanting little who can sing, Baboucar Seven Grandpa, Jeep Cherokee Seven Skips and Foxen Seven Fall. The mother of all three Falls be alive but gone to Lowell, now name Lowell Second Plumber and got posies bad.

Of the eights and nines, there be my vally Keepers Eight Fofana, worth all other children, and her favorite hatred Mouse Eight Wang. Progresso Nine Wilson and My Sorrow Nine Wang been solo-animoses for some years, ain’t speak with never another child.

Then come Marlboro Ten Tete-Brisee and Kool Ten Tete-Brisee, twins, birdcatcher-age and lean. Shiny Eleven Angels be a prettieuse and flirtish girl that give bad sign of wisdom, for she dabbit after Crow. Shiny chosen her own name, this be the measure of her wits. Redbook Twelve Ba, Bowl Thirteen Tete-Brisee and Cat Fancy Thirteen Ba all go ridiculous in love with Driver. They tend the littles and tell reveries one to the other, all day long. Jonah Fourteen Feet the only weakly jones, and scary since his brother took to Lowell two years gone. Then come Jermaine Fourteen Uptown, Christing born and Christing seriose in gentleness. Jermaine be wisty for my love, and many Lowells also and some Christings sleeping hungry for my love.

Next be Tequila Fourteen Tool, Mari’s Ghost Fourteen Diouf, Hate You Fourteen Ka, and Asha Badmouth Fifteen Feet. Then come my place. Then come malicieuse Crow Sixteen Doe, and Villa Seventeen Insulting, fool infatuate for any male. When she ain’t bother males, she eat, that be the list of what she do. Last come my Driver, which make thirty-eight in Sengle town.

These been my Sengles in the year when Driver been our sergeant; time that kindly John been husband of the Christing fellowship; when the Lowells’ El Mayor been Sengle born and Sengle brave. Mamadou was NewKing of Mass Armies, savage like his people – yet the child have dignity and sense, best of the worst.

Fat luck been the story of this year. Snares ever struggling full, and every arrow find a turkey. Any a sleeper street we did maraud, that street give food. We war like twenty guns, but no one injure. Sling our hammocks in the crowns of sycamores like secret birds, and rest there, chattering and smoking, noses to the stars. Children forgot the taste of hunger and the touch of fear.

Yo when Driver sicken, this the happiness we lose.

Across this meadow road be Friendly’s, which say FRIENDLY’S on one sign, and FRIENDLY’S ICE CREAM on the other. This been a store for trading food. But I ain’t like to be called Friendly’s anything. I know it ain’t myself the sleepers meant, but it just feel disgusting. Then I remember ice cream been a food I never taste. I wonder what my mama dream to name me for this food, as if she name me Something Lost.

Winterspell. Prayers for the Stolen. Anansi Boys. The Walls Around Us. The Girl With All the Gifts. Kindred. Pretty Deadly.: I have been on quite the reading streak lately. Yet I’m afraid that there’s nowhere left to go after The Country of Ice Cream Star. I finished this book nearly a week ago, and am still nursing a pretty epic book hangover.

At first I was hesitant to request a copy of Ice Cream Star through Goodreads. Based on previous reviews, people seemed to fall into one of two camps: those who absolutely loved it, and those who DNF’ed due to the author’s invented dialects. I worried that the pidgin – or perhaps “Senglese” is a more accurate term; yeah, let’s use that instead! – would stymie me. Possibly to tears.

But it actually wasn’t that bad! While I struggled a bit initially, the story sucked me right in and made me want to power through. Fifty pages in, I’d gotten the knack of it; and by book’s end, I often found myself thinking in Senglese, even when not immersed in Ice Cream’s world. Granted, a small glossary would have been bone, just to be sure I got the nuances right; but overall, I don’t think the invented dialects were an impediment.

[As far as English goes, the main dialect is Senglese; the Sengle’s neighbors, the Christings, the NatMass Armies, and those living at Lowell Mill, also speak Senglese, with minor variations, e.g. adopted sleeper words like “cool.” Then there’s the Ciudad de las Marias – formerly New York City – a (s)Panish-speaking theocracy; Quantico – i.e., Washington, D.C. – whose residents speak with a pronounced southern drawl; and the “roos” (derived from “Ruski,” perhaps?), who speak “rooish” (Russian? or is it Uzbek? or some combination thereof?)]

Just the opposite, in fact: the variety of dialects, including the very distinctive Senglese, helps to establish the mood, transporting the reader to a time and place that’s similar to our own – yet very different. Like the steady rocking of a boat, Ice Cream’s voice lulled me back into the story. It’s an immersive experience.

As ambitious as the multiple dialects and languages are, the story’s arguably more so. Set in the indeterminable future, some eighty years after a virus called WAKS has swept through America (if not the world), The Country of Ice Cream Star is a country fractured. Posies – an illness which may strike at any time, but guarantees death by young adulthood – has left the Nighted States to the children, including Ice Cream Fifteen Star.

Her community, the Sengles, are hunter-scavengers who camp in the Massa(chusetts) woods and occasionally war with the neighboring NatMass Armies, a fierce group of male warriors who raid, enslave, and rape along the East Coast. Thanks to the Long Agreement, they no longer attack their neighbors, but rather take their “filth” elsewhere. Nearby are the Christings, a polygamous group of Christians who farm and trade – and who, thanks to said Agreement, are obliged to provide the NewKing of the Armies with a Queen (of the King’s choosing, natch) as needed. Along with the “simpers” – sex slaves – she’s the only female in their camp, and has no rights. Rounding out the society are the child-scientists at Lowell Mill, whose curiosity is powered in part by hydro-electricity provided by a nearby river.

Ice Cream’s life is good – or good enough – until her older brother Driver, sergeant of the Sengles, is stricken with Posies. Next in line for leadership is her animose Crow, whose authority she cannot tolerate. Bolstered by rumors of a cure, Ice Cream enlists the help of a captured roo named Pasha to help her find it, save her brother – and save the world.

You know most of this from the brief synopsis on the dust jacket, of course. And yet this three-paragraph summary doesn’t even begin to do the the story justice. In fact, I actually found it a bit misleading. Whereas I expected a dystopian-slash-Western road trip, Ice Cream and Pasha Roo don’t even depart until page 213 – about 1/3 of the way into the book. Up until this point, the plot centers on the relations between the various groups living in and around Massa Woods.

And when they do set out, they’re not alone: all of the Sengles and most of the Lowell Millians accompany them, fleeing as they are from the NatMass Armies and their rumored alliance with the roos. Ice Cream’s journey to the cure is long and winding, with many stops along the way. I won’t ruin it by going into detail. Just know that it’s unexpected and awesome and filled with both humor and heartbreak. It’s been compared to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and I don’t think that’s too far off. Weirdly, I’m also reminded of the SyFy television show 12 Monkeys – the most recent episode of which questioned the ramifications of sacrificing the world to save the one you love.

Pasha and Ice Cream, you slay me.

Additional thoughts:

* The Country of Ice Cream Star might be the most diverse book I’ve ever read – and it’s certainly the most diverse in recent memory. This came as a wonderful surprise, since the synopsis and cover don’t give any indication of the heroine’s race/ethnicity, let alone the larger racial politics embedded within the plot. A good 95% of the characters are people of color; those living in what was Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and NYC are alternately described as brown- and black-skinned – a fact that I was a little slow to digest, thanks in equal parts to the dialog and the overwhelming whiteness of contemporary novels. (At first I questioned whether I was even reading the text correctly; my notes are punctuated with many a question mark and exclamation point.) Newman attributes these racial demographics to WAKS, which killed whites outright, while people of color demonstrated some resistance to the disease.

However, WAKS/Posies did not lead to a worldwide apocalypse, as evidenced by the roos. Europe and Russia, at least, are intact, and the Russian Federation – for which Pasha was a soldier – have used the plague to colonize other lands, including Africa and North America. Like the NatMass Armies, they slave and rape – and also use promises of the cure to lure children to fight and die for them.

The rarity of roos – at least until the denouement of the book – have made them somewhat of a curiosity to the children of the Nighted States. In Ciudad Marias, roos are kidnapped and kept to serve as sacrificial Jesuses; once captured, Pasha becomes Keepers Eight’s pet. There are endless debates about whether white people can speak or reason – if they should even be considered human. In a refreshing reversal, dark-skinned is the default, and white people are thought of as the other. Some of these exchanges are among my favorites.

* About that cover: the original, which I didn’t notice until after I’d finished the book, actually features a silhouette of a young woman of color. While I like the ramshackle building artwork better on its face – it has a lonely, desolate feeling – when taken in context, I think they should have stuck with the original. At the end of the day, Ice Cream is the story.

* I can’t help but wonder how Hollywood will try and whitewash the cast, should Ice Cream Star ever make it to the big screen.

* Additionally, Crow is gay; he leaves the Sengles to be with his lover Karim, a featherboy in the NatMass Armies – which, by the by, is the only group accepting of homosexuality (or at least same-sex male couples). Amongst the Sengles, Christings, and in Ciudad Marias, homosexuality is considered either unnatural or a sin. While the religious taboos against same-sex relationships have an obvious contemporary basis, I can only assume that the (secular) Sengles frown upon such couplings due to the need to continually produce more children, to keep the group’s numbers up. Indeed, Driver constantly badgers his younger sister to pick a guy and start popping out babies already!

* I wasn’t a huge fan of Ice Cream’s relationship with Mamadou, even if I thought it provided an interesting (and oftentimes uncomfortable) basis for more philosophical questions re: moral relativism, distinguishing between a sinner and his sins, etc. The term “hate fucking” kept popping into my head – a gross and ugly term made all the grosser by the participants’ young ages.

* Ciudad Marias: I’m not so sure I can see children spending their already too-short lives memorizing Bible scripture and wasting their Sunday mornings sitting in church, being lectured at. Then again, begging religious authority is a lovely way to amass power and privilege, so maybe the whole Marias thing is totally believable after all.

* I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending, which is hopeful but depressing; conclusive yet incredibly open-ended. Newman distills what could easily be a 600-page sequel into one half-page paragraph. It’s rather anti-climactic given all that comes before.

Minor reservations aside, I loveloveloved The Country of Ice Cream Star. There’s detailed world building; unique dialects and voices that immerse you in the story; plenty of action and adventure; diversity like whoah; a love story like no other; and a hero you can’t help but root for. This is a book that I’ll be re-reading and unpacking years from now – a new all-time favorite if ever there was one. All the stars. (Hopefully eighty-plus, in Ice Cream’s case. She’s earned it.)

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

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: My god yes! A good 95% of the characters are people of color – African-American and Latino. Roos – white people – are so rare as to be a curiosity in the Knighted States; their intelligence, capacity for speech, and even humanity are a matter of debate among those in the Mass Woods and Ciudad Marias. Additionally, Crow is gay; he leaves the Sengles to be with his lover Karim, a featherboy in the NatMass Armies. Most of the other groups frown upon same-sex couples, either due to religious taboos (the Christings, Ciudad Marias) or, possibly, the need for procreation (the Sengles). See my review for more.

 

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