“Stine’s writing is clear, unadorned, and honest yet electrifying, much like her characters, and the story is a pleasure to read.”
In a post-apocalyptic landscape dominated by the disintegrating remnants of plastic waste, a small, desperate community struggles to survive.
The apocalypse in question is humanity’s self-destruction through rampant consumption of disposable (but not biodegradable) plastics. Climate change has decimated the coasts and cities, and plastic refuse clogs and poisons the waterways and land. Those living in the rural outlands of Scrappalacia (once Appalachia) manage to survive by “plucking” what plastic can still be salvaged for reuse, selling it to factories that melt and re-shape it into bricks for the privileged residents of cities like “The Els” to build and repair their homes. The poorest and least fortunate of humanity are, as is typical, forced to shoulder the brunt of this plastic-filled disaster’s consequences.
An ancient junkyard centered around a strip club called “Trashlands” serves as a home of sorts to a small, close-knit group: Coral, a young mother and plucker of plastic; her adoptive father, the self-appointed teacher Mr. Fall; her partner Trillium, a tattoo artist; and her friend Foxglove, an exotic dancer who, for a price, will have Trillium tattoo her with names of patrons. Some seven years earlier, Coral’s son Shanghai had been snatched away to work in the plastic-brick factories, a common fate of children in Scrappalachia as small hands are needed to melt and mold the plastic.
The novel weaves through the relationships between the various denizens of the junkyard: their backgrounds and hopes, the ways they find meaning and significance in a bleak setting. Their existence is disrupted with the arrival of Miami, a reported from the Els who has come searching for his sister’s killers (a quest which he readily acknowledges is likely futile). He hires Coral to help show him around the junkyard and introduce him to its inhabitants, planning to write about them once he returns home.
Coral has never shaken the guilt she felt after losing Shanghai, particularly given their already-complicated parent/child relationship and the circumstances surrounding his conception. When she finally learns his location—and the cost to recover him—she agrees to help Miami in order to earn enough to ransom Shanghai, and Miami uses this time to learn about the Trashland community:
“A look came over Miami’s face, surprise crossed with something else, maybe sadness. ‘There are lots of cities still standing,’ he said. ‘Not just the one I live in. Cities with newspapers. And more cities forming all the time. New buildings, schools.’
“‘This is my city,’ Coral said, spreading her arms to indicate the bank, the river of plastic. ‘My city of Trashlands.’
“‘You could live in a city if you wanted,’ Miami said.
“‘You don’t even know if your apartment is going to be there when you get back.’
“‘They’re holding my job for me. Expecting me to return. And if something were to happen, there are other apartments. Other places to live, like I said. You deserve more than this.’
“Coral laid her sock across her knee. River weeds had tangled in her net. She could see their tendrils, dark and slimy. It was just weeds she had caught. ‘I don’t think we get more. I think people like you and me,’ she paused, ‘People like me, we don’t get that many chances. This is my life. This is it.’
“‘It sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself.’
“Coral felt something rise up inside her. She was not sure how to name the emotion filling her chest. It was anger, outrage, shame. He had no right to tell her about her life, he had barely glimpsed it. He hardly even knew her. And yet she felt the nagging pull of a different emotion too: small but powerful. Doubt. Like the hand of a child.”
The richness of the novel comes from the detailed histories and motivations of the characters, particularly the adaptations they make to adjust to this hardscrabble existence while maintaining a sense of self and worth despite the miserable surroundings. Coral is an artist who leaves her pieces hidden in the woods; Trillium finds meaning in his tattoos; Mr. Fall uses ancient volumes of encyclopedias to educate the children.
Chapters are devoted to different characters in turn, including supporting actors like Foxglove’s employer/pimp (and de facto leader of the junkyard community) Rattlesnake Master, which illuminates their complexities while propelling the plotlines toward their conclusion. Stine’s writing is clear, unadorned, and honest yet electrifying, much like her characters, and the story is a pleasure to read.
This is a captivating and fascinating novel, set in a future which seems alarmingly likely and featuring complicated but ultimately sympathetic characters.