Earth Girl by Janet Edwards
Earth Girl is the first book of Janet Edwards’s planned EARTH GIRL trilogy. On her website, Edwards reports that both Amazon.uk and Kobobooks have rated the e-book version of Earth Girl as among the Best YA of 2012. I can see why people would like this book, but it was a miss for me.
Edwards has a great concept here. Five hundred years into our future, most humans have left Earth to colonize various sectors of space. In rare cases, some children born on other planets are unable to survive there. They must be sent through the portals back to Earth within a few minutes, or they will die of anaphylactic shock. On earth, these Handicapped, as they are called, are raised and educated in group institutions, assigned a Professional Mum and Dad who are each available to them two hours a week, and are free to pursue a fully paid-for education. The colonists in other sectors, however, look down on them, calling them apes, throwbacks, and “nean,” short for Neanderthal. The book is well set up to deal with intolerance, prejudice and judging by appearances from the first few pages, where our first-person narrator Jarra, a Handicapped girl, tells us about her plan to confront “exos,” as she calls the colonists, on a college field study in the archeological digs in the remains of New York City.
Jarra’s breezy voice and her stated intention to create a journal or document for some unknown reader allow Edwards to do convincing exposition before Jarra reveals her plan and gets started. A few important details are missing from all this front-loading though, especially information about the Military, who become one of the most important plot elements as the story progresses. Jarra, even though she is funny and has a light tone, is bitter about her birth parents’ abandonment of her and her second-class-citizen status. She plans to join a dig sponsored by an off-world school, out-perform every exo on the team, and then reveal the truth about herself and confront their bigotry.
The first part of this plan is quite successful, because Jarra is practically perfect. She is pretending to be a Military child, so in one month she masters a self-defense course and becomes a fighter. She knows everything there is to know about archeological digs because she has worked on them before. She knows Earth and post-Earth history minutely because she’s studied it. The adult instructor, Playdon, says once, “Pay attention to this moment, class, because we just found something Jarra didn’t know.” She immediately attracts the positive attention of Fian, the handsome, smart, funny and compassionate Deltan on the team, and has no trouble winning over the instructor, Playdon, even though he knows of her origin and is skeptical.
Jarra soon realizes that judging by appearances is a two-way street. The daughter of a colonial media mogul turns out to be fair, honest, inclusive and brave. The two Betan students, who offend others with their language and their relaxed view on human nudity, turn out to have a heartbreaking secret, and have made a wrenching choice by becoming part of the team. Jarra begins to fit in and discovers some important information about her own background and heritage.
Then, on page 158, the story went completely off the rails for me. Jarra suffers a tragic loss, and it should be a setback for her — but she reacts as if completely traumatized by this event, and retreats into a delusional fantasy world. It is as if the made-up “Jarra – Military Kid,” or JMK as Jarra has called her, suddenly emerges as a dominant personality. This shift, which comes with no foreshadowing in the book, hints at a level of emotional instability that is far more serious than Jarra’s previous inferiority complex and bitterness. This development also weakens Playdon, the responsible adult in the book, when he accepts the false statements Jarra makes about her condition even though he knows the truth.
Then, about seventy pages later, another traumatic event snaps Jarra out of her delusion, leaving her in an embarrassing predicament with Fian, but no major or lasting problems at all. The book sorts everything out, leaves Jarra as a hero and delivers an implausible happy ending. Most seriously, the delusional state isn’t even needed — everything that happens in the climax could happen if there was no change to Jarra’s state of mind.
Part of the problem here is structural. Jarra’s refuge in her delusion would be easier to depict if Edwards weren’t hampered by a first-person narrator. The episodic nature of the story, with exciting events at the dig site that aren’t connected to the actions of the characters in any way, make this problem more glaring.
Earth Girl failed for me, but a younger reader might like it. There is a lot to like here: a good set-up, especially of the Military, which seems to be a kind of benign dictatorship, since they control all the portals and determine which planets are acceptable for colonization. Edwards is a good writer; I just think the psychology wasn’t plausible and she had some trouble juggling the plot elements. This book was released as an e-book in August, 2012, but will be available in paper in March.