Little Monarchs Review

By | Friday, July 01, 2022 Leave a Comment
In 2049, there's a seemingly inexplicable shift in the sun's energy that kills virtually every mammal above ground via radiation poisoning within a matter of hours. The only humans that remained alive were those who happened to be underground or similarly shielded at the time. It wasn't until 2090 that Flora discovered a medicine that could stave off sun sickness, but it only lasted for about 36 hours and could only be made by harvesting some of the oils from the wings of monarch butterflies. Elvire's parents, having been working with Flora, left for Michoacán, Mexico hoping to get access to the large monrach groves there but sent back a message (via homing pigeon) that the trek was too dangerous and they were effectively trapped there. The book then starts in the summer of 2101 as Flora and Elvire are following the monarchs' migration patterns along the Oregon and California coasts, dealing with everything from earthquakes to tetnus to mauraders... all while Flora continues looking to improve her medicine into a fully realized vaccine, which might then allow them to head down to Mexico to meet back up with Elvire's parents.

I read my first dystopian fictions when I was probably around 13 or 14 years old. And there were seemingly no end of them throughout the 1980s with all sorts of variations on post-nuclear-apocalypses. Of course, there were other types of dystopias presented as well, but nuclear annihiliation was the most popular. Broadly speaking, the genre is supposed to highlight where things might go wrong and act as a deterrent to readers to help avoid those outcomes. Terminator 2 is perhaps one of the most widely-known and easily digested examples of this -- to avoid the future where SkyNet takes over and creates Terminators to destroy all humans, Sarah Connor has eliminate the work being done in her present that could ultimately lead to that outcome. "There is no fate but what we make." Jonathan Case's Little Monarchs is, as far as I can tell, unique in that it presents the same type of dystopian world, but it seems to have come from just a random happenstance that no one on Earth had any influence, much less control over. Further, it's presented as a... happy isn't exactly the right word here... bright, maybe? It's not presented in a typically dark and gloomy fashion; there's barely a sense that this is a dystopia, it feels almost like Flora and Elvire are just on an extended camping trip or something.

I think this stems from presenting the story mostly from the point of view of Elvire, a ten-year-old girl. She's no Pollyana, certainly, but she does have a sense of optimism that hasn't been completely jaded by humans being humans. Flora, by contrast, is more cynical in her decisions -- but only inasmuch as she's more aware of the failings of mankind through experience. While she's not the type to just pull a gun on anyone who shows up -- she doesn't even seem to have any weapons throughout the story -- she's still leary of strangers and slow to build trust. Interestingly, Case presents both pros and cons to either side in a fairly realistic manner, and seems to ultimately point to somewhat nuanced middle ground.

Another theme running throughout the book is one of hope. How appropriate is it to rely on hope? How much? For how long? But here again, it's not presented as the hope of blind optimism, but rather the realistic hope that comes from perserveance and making gradual improvements over time. It's not the hope of a random 10-year-old wanting to get on the Olympic gymnastic team; it's the hope of a 15-year-old who's been training since they were 4 and have already won several national competitions. You might call it qualified hope or the hope of reasonable expectations.

One of the narrative hooks that Case uses is that Flora is trying to continue Elvire's education while they're on the road. Flora gives her assignments to do in her notebook, and we periodically see glimpses of them. I found this to be a very clever device used very effectively. It allows for insight directly into Elvire's thought process in an age where traditional thought balloons are frowned upon; it makes for an easy and obvious place to do any exposition dumps and avoid awkward/forced dialogue; and it provides practical information to the reader. Elvire's format in writing is to jot most things down in black, but being as they're on the road with limited resources, she's frequently not able to validate her theories and findings against established science; however, she switches to a red pen for things that she is absolutely certain are facts that she had learned previously. This allows Case to include many details about monarchs (and other topics) that go beyond one character's observations; it's a way to highlight to the reader that, yes, this part flows with the story but it's something I looked up and verified, and isn't just texture for the story. Further, many of these elements go beyond simple facts and get into how-tos that would be relevent in survival situations. Tips for surviving in a desert, or how to create a baby harness from a single strap for examples. It's like Case snuck a disaster survival guide into this story about butterflies.

I was summarily impressed when I read Case's self-published Sea Freak back in 2008 and I think he's just been improving his skills since then. Little Monarchs came out in April from Margaret Ferguson Books and the hardcover retails for $22.99 US. You can get it from most book stores, or order a signed/sketch-marked copy directly from Case for the same price.
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