“Breathing is a right, not a privilege, so I’m stealing it back” – a great first line. Oxygen in the atmosphere gone. Great way to begin!
Our trio of narrators have different experiences living in the Pod where air is available to its citizens- at a cost. While Alina is a pretty kick-awesome, strong, independent, lead character trying to find a better future out of the Pod, Bea and Quinn are more typical High School students focused on family and friends. In a world where only Premiums have oxygen on a needed bases, Bea and Alina and their families (Auxiliaries) pay for Oxygen with their taxes, or extra fees when needed. As you can imagine, life is not easy when the most necessary thing costs money and you are poor and concerned for every breath – such is the life for Bea and her family. On the other end of this society are the Premiums, the elite, and those who can afford additional oxygen tanks not merely for survival, but for extracurricular activities: jogging, making out, even jubilant laughter – such is the life for Quinn, Bea’s best friend. Soon Alina, Bea, and Quinn are out of the Pod of society and in the Outlands and the story of how man destroyed trees, the ocean, and led to the lack of oxygen is explained.
Years ago, when the levels of oxygen decreased and the planet nearly died, the population grew desperate as they died off. As chaos grew, the company Breathe created a lottery for those allowed into Pod to try and survive. Life is stuck, decades later, still in the Pod under the dome, using Oxygen tanks bought from Breathe and everything – and everyone – outside of it died. Oxygen is created by those in charge but necessarily bought by everyone. There are no trees or oceans, or fairness in deciding who gets the tanks.
Of course the struggle for power between Breathe (the company making people dependent on oxygen) and the Resistance (Alina and the rebels who are not only fighting against Breathe, but secretly growing trees in the Outlands) affects our trio quiet personally and they must accept new truths as well as changed relationships. This is another story of a government deciding the restraints and freedoms for its citizens based on a class system [not a big surprise for YA whose readership are mostly teenagers who constantly struggle for more power]. However, an additional power struggle, not focused on in many YA books is mentioned by a fierce, filthy, strong, old woman (a drifter living in the Outlands) who teaches our young female characters a thing or two about courage and love – and equality. Perhaps more YA doesn’t focus on sexism and inequality for fear of being deemed a “girl book”, but Sarah Crossan sneaks in a truth most books, even with the strongest female characters don’t showcase to its underage readers. (It also doesn’t go unnoticed that two of the narrators are female and there are strong female characters throughout (I’m holding out hope that Quinn’s mom becomes one in the end)). When Bea comments how nice the freedom must have been back then – when air was free – Maude Blue takes this moment to school Bea on the reality of life:
It weren’t that way. It ain’t never that way. People is people and greed is greed. There weren’t never a time of true equality. Women didn’t play in that stadium and get the same crowds as the men…. Freedom and equality is myths, girls. You should learn that now” (194)
Once the battle between the soldiers and the Resistance is underway, and the aftermath of it, this story – which already has a great pace – really gets exciting. It reminded me, though not as bold or as heartbreaking, of the action packed chapters of Mockingjay or the final battle in Harry Potter, and since Breathe has a sequel I am sure the future action will only increase…. one can hope it’s as bold in action as it is in taking on climate issues and equality.
Sequel – Resist