By: Alex Falck
The List, a middle-grade novel by Patricia Forde, was originally published in her native Ireland as The Wordsmith. Its recent re-release on American shores is garnering well-deserved attention for this timely dystopian tale.
In a post-apocalyptic future ushered in by environmental disaster, John Noa is one of few survivors. Many years ago, his foresight lead him to create a community—which he christened Ark— designed to withstand the storms of global warming and rising sea levels. Now he leads this isolated community as their savior. His gospel is the sanctity of nature, the inherently sinful nature of humanity. “The animals lived peacefully on the planet—doing no harm, living in harmony with nature. Man was the one who spoiled everything. Man and his words.” To bring people back in harmony, he has instituted List—a heavily-patrolled language of just 500 words.
Young Letta is the wordsmith’s apprentice, doling out specialized words to craftsmen as needed and protecting the public from the danger of abstract ideas. But Ark is restless, its restrictions under attack by the Desecrators, artists who illegally promote creativity and self-expression. In helping a young man who turns out to be a Desecrator, Letta begins to question whether Noa’s dictatorship is as benevolent as she’s been taught. Eventually, her inquiry will lead her to a harrowing discovery.
Patricia Forde’s debut novel The List is an attention-grabbing and timely story ideal for tween readers. Front-loaded action and exposition quickly bring one into Letta’s world, and Forde continues to maintain a high level of dramatic tension throughout the book. Though the sentence structure tends to be straightforwardly declarative, the narration revels in a richness of vocabulary that contrasts starkly with snippets of dialogue in the stiff, clumsy language of List. Letta’s disillusion with her society is an enduring coming-of-age theme, but placing it in the context of anthropogenic climate change makes it especially relevant to contemporary youth. Fittingly, The List mostly eschews black-and-white morality for complexity: Noa was a great man who saved many lives, but that turned him into a megalomaniac who dehumanizes everyone outside of his inner circle; self-expression alone is insufficient to avert disaster, but art is nonetheless vital to our humanity. As extremists rock the boat of our own society, the dystopian future Forde envisions seems all too possible.
Despite the obvious similarities between the language of List and 1984’s Newspeak, censorship itself is not a major theme of The List but a means by which Forde explores broader ideas about self-expression. The book includes only a little dialogue in List, just enough to give a sense of it. Although we’re told that most people in Ark only speak List, in fact it seems that most people speak a great deal more, and they stop restricting their speech as soon as they’re in private. Because there’s never an in-depth conversation in List or a glimpse of the interior monologue of a List monoglot, the effects of such a limited vocabulary aren’t fully explored.
Still, there is plenty to ponder about the value of the abstract and the impractical, and the limitations of language. In The List, Forde has crafted an affective and thought-provoking story of the struggle to preserve not just humans, but humanity.
Alex Falck is a Children’s Librarian at the Chicago Public Library. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.