CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 14. . . . December 8, 2017
Marivic Stone wakes up from her nightmare, knowing that her night terror is a clear indicator that she has gone “ACES”, an Adolescent Chromosomniatic Episode that is much a part of puberty as boys’ voices changing and girls having their first periods. Yesterday, Marivic’s best friend, Saren, had gone to the Barton Center for Adolescent Health for “winnowing”, a medical procedure which, amongst other things, stops the ACES. After her mother’s death in a fire at Darby Public School, 13-year-old Marivic was taken in by her grandparents, and thinking that it’s time to make the trip, she asks Gumps (the affectionate name she calls her grandfather) to call Barton and take her there.
Walking to school, Marivic passes Saren’s house and wonders how Saren’s mother is doing. The previous year, Saren’s brother, Lex, died from some complications which occurred during his time at Barton. Since then, Mrs. Silver’s “sadness turned into something else, something erratic and scary, and she went a little bonkers” (p. 7). When Saren was pubescent, the situation worsened; Mrs. Silver began talking about taking Saren somewhere so that she couldn’t be winnowed, a strange concept, unheard of, at least in Darby. But Saren went to Barton, anyway.
Once at school, it’s time for Marivic’s least favorite class – gym — made even less tolerable by Saren’s absence. Today, the class is practicing the two hundred metre dash. Despite her reluctance, at the sound of the start, Marivic runs like a gazelle, finishing in record time. And then, someone in class suggests that she race against Kamal Beck, a super-athlete, brilliant student, and arrogant in the way that only gifted and talented adolescent males can be. They thoroughly dislike each other. She beats him in that race, too, but he cries foul because, as he sees it, “something’s up. If you ask me, this one’s running a little impaired.” (p. 16) Amazing physical speed and/or strength is an unusual “imp”, code word for Adolescent Physical Impairment; other more common imps include physical manifestations, such as numbness to temperature and intensified powers of sight and/or hearing (which Kamal experiences).
Sent home by her gym teacher, Marivic gets ready for the trip to Barton. According to the Barton Guide, issued to every student in Darby early in their school career, winnowing is necessary to prevent students from experiencing “Destruction”, a melt-down state in which unwinnowed individuals enact seriously disturbed behaviour (including serious accidents and murder). Given such frightening possibilities, why would anyone avoid winnowing? After all, it seemed that anybody who had been winnowed returned with no clear recollection of the process.
Marivic and Gumps are very close, and so, she is shocked that he won’t take her to Barton. Instead, he has arranged for Kamal’s mom to transport them to Barton, a former military base where the staff are relentlessly cheery and try hard to make the place “feel less like a hospital and more like a hotel.” (p. 30) Marivic’s intake coordinator is Roya, a nurse who looks and acts as if she came straight from central casting in some medical drama. Knowing that Saren arrived just a day or two before her, Marivic asks Roya for permission to see her, a decision she soon regrets. When Saren is unresponsive to a knock on the door, Marivic barges into her room, finding her friend in the midst of a full-fledged ACES episode, a profoundly disturbing sight to witness. Nevertheless, Roya assures Marivic that all will be well with Saren, and so, Marivic spends her first night at Barton, plagued with horrifying nightmares.
The next day is even more perturbing. Every individual admitted to Barton undergoes an intake exam, and while Marivic awaits the physician who will conduct it, the attending nurse recounts the history which led to Barton’s becoming an important medical centre. After the Second World War, a massive pandemic of infertility resulted from toxins unleashed by experimental technology and chemical weaponry. Women either couldn’t become pregnant at all, or had babies who died before the age of two. But, a team of five scientists – the Barton Five — arrived in this little New Mexico town, now known as “the Cradle of America”, discovered a substance called “SuperGen”, and saved humanity from extinction. And now, they focus on attempting “to unravel the mysteries of adolescence and perfect the winnowing.” (p. 36)
No one ever feels comfortable dressed only in a paper exam gown, but Dr. Leathers (“call me Dr. Dad”, 37) does his best to put Marivic at ease. Even his bonhomie is shattered with the arrrival of his colleague, Dr. Abrams, who announces that he will take over the procedure of Marivic’s exam. Dr. Dad’s loss of cool suggests that an intake’s being examined by Barton’s “head honcho” is definitely out of the ordinary, and, as the exam continues, Dr. Abrams’ clinical manner changes, especially when his questions move from queries about Marivic’s recent running achievements to in-depth questioning of Marivic’s knowledge of Gumps’ past history as a staff member at Barton. This last revelation is a complete shock to Marivic, but it’s only the first of many to come.
All manner of tests – medical, psychological, and of changes in physical abilities related to the “imps” — continue for Saren, Kamal, and Marivic, and others at Barton. During one of her running tests, not only does Marivic experience super-human speeds but also a strange psychological phenomenon; she feels something “like a musical chord”, slipping into it as if she were “the missing note or something” and once in it, she no longer feels as if she is running, but as if she is being pulled along “like a moving current of music.” (p. 8). Fascinating though this is to Barton’s scientists, Dr. Abrams is clearly concerned about the potential danger that Marivic’s “imp” could cause her and decides that it’s time to advance the schedule for her winnowing.
Roya (who always seems to be waiting around the corner for Marivic) suggests that a hot shower will wash away the discomfort of the run and perhaps her concerns about the winnowing procedure. As Marivic exits the shower, a red-haired boy named Abbott suddenly appears in the hall. Marivic’s never seen him before; he’s too young to be a staff member, and while he might be another new intake, she’d have remembered that red hair. Settling into her bed for a much-needed nap, she fluffs her pillows and beneath them, she finds a photo of her grandfather, taken in 1965, from his time at Barton. But, there’s more: a Barton brochure with a message that reads “Disorientation. Sub-level three, the old pool. 11:00 pm. Tell no one”. (p. 74) Despite that last command, Marivic shares the news with Saren, who has also received the same invitation and, being a natural risk taker, she’s decided to attend the meeting. And although Marivic is a natural rule-follower, she follows her friend to the meeting at the old pool.
Once there, Marivic and Saren are surprised to find Kamal and several other schoolmates. It turns out that Abbott called the meeting; he’s a member of “People for a Winnowing Free World, otherwise known as Winfree.” (p. 85) Although it is known as an “adolescent health centre”, Abbott claims that Barton’s purpose is to experiment on adolescents, denying them a chance to live purposefully with their enhanced abilities and robbing them of their memories. Furthermore, of all the winnowing centres across America, Barton has the highest death rate. One of the original Barton Five scientists, Dr. Elizabeth Lowry, is trying to right these wrongs, and Abbott offers the assembled group the chance to leave Barton, join Winfree, and escape to the secret location to which Dr. Lowry has decamped.
Needless to say, after years of indoctrination about the need for winnowing, they have difficulty believing Abbott’s story, but he offers some remarkably compelling evidence. For Saren, the clincher comes when Abbott raises questions about Marivic’s grandfather’s decision to leave his 35 year career as a mechanical engineer at Barton. Marivic is sceptical; however, a day later, after being told that Saren died after her winnowing procedure, she’s convinced: “If Abbott was right that SuperGen was the cause of the imps and that Barton was trying to hide the truth by cutting out the bits and pieces that they decided were unsavoury, then Barton was responsible for Saren’s death. Who was going to make Barton pay? And how could I let them do the same to me, knowing that they had killed Saren?” (Pp. 120-121)
It’s a courageous decision to make. By joining Winfree, Marivic is leaving behind the world that she has known. When midnight arrives, she sneaks down the corridors of her dorm (where her fellow Intakes are sleeping soundly, thanks to their nightly dose of Somnease), meets Abbott, and - to her surprise - Kamal, and the escape and adventure begins. Remember the motto of the television show, The X-Files, “The truth is out there.”? Well, it seems like the truth about Barton, SuperGen, and the winnowing is out there on U. S. Route 66, past the Barton Flats, and it is found in a most unlikely locale, The Starlight Diner. Before the novel ends, there are plenty of other “reveals”, involving aliens, telepathic abilities, and the significance of the heart-shaped necklace which Marivic always wears, a black, upside-down heart that once belonged to her late grandmother.
The Winnowing is set in 1989, barely three decades ago, and takes place in New Mexico, a place where UFOs and aliens are claimed to have appeared. Nobody confiscates Marivic’s smartphone when she arrives in Barton because the device hasn’t been invented yet. When she and Kamal find Dr. Lowry’s office, there’s no mention of a computer, and all of the doctor’s files are paper. 21st century readers may or may not notice these details, but, for someone who has lived in the pre-digital age (i.e. this reviewer), these are reminders that the story is situated in the recent past. At the same time, the mind control exerted by the winnowing process and the super-human powers which adolescents exhibit as a result of alien DNA give the book a futuristic and dystopic feel.
However, the interaction amongst the teens in this story is completely familiar to anyone who lives and works with adolescents. The girls’ envy of Suki’s edgy stylishness, Kamal’s swaggering self-confidence, and that special “best friend” relationship shared by Saren and Marivic are powerful reminders that teens are teens are teens. Sometimes, I found it hard to believe that Marivic and her peers were only 13-years-old; they acted and sounded more like 16- year-olds, but perhaps that’s a result of “SuperGen” and their extraordinary genetic inheritance.
The Winnowing is a story of friendship, of challenging the status quo, and of scientific endeavour which has taken a very sinister turn. Atlhough the story focuses on Marivic and her best friend, Kamal and Abbott are both male characters who show courage and emotional growth as the story moves towards its conclusion. This is a book for capable readers, grade 9 and up, and although I think that its primary readership will be female, guys will enjoy the thrill and adventure once Marivic and Kamal escape Barton and become members of Winfree.
A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.