Jeff Hirsch's newest novel, The Darkest Path, is available from Scholastic Press. The review of the YA dystopian novel is below, as published in the Broadkill Review.
Jeff Hirsch’s third novel with Scholastic, The Darkest Path, a YA dystopian adventure, is a descent into hell for young Callum Roe, who flees the fanatical Path Army that sweeps across the United States like a dark shadow. America is in the grips of a second Civil War. The 1% are even richer, and more untouchable than before, and the poor are poor, and forced into situations that aren’t safe or pretty. The Federal Army is weakening, the infrastructure crumbling. The young Cal is attempting to return home, and must travel through a fractured America with only his scrappy dog, Bear, as his only trusted companion. The Path Forces are close behind, a fanatical sect of America led by Nathan Hill, a religious and military bully who looms over the narrative, unseen, a dark magic man pushing buttons from behind the curtain.
The Path loosely resembles a religious right sect, with strict Middle Eastern inspired gender roles enforced by law, and a fervor that matches the best of Sunday salesmen. If you are “on Path,” you follow God’s will, and Nathan Hill’s will, and seek to remake America into a beacon of light and hope. They are brutal, strict, and when they crush over your land they offer you “The Choice,” join their belief or die, or so everyone believes. What The Choice is, no one is sure and The Choice becomes a ringing motif in the novel, the theme extending beyond the Path’s brutality into Cal’s life as he makes choices, many of the split second decisions, that alter his path as he and Bear pushes East.
In the first section, Cal’s brother, James, haunts the Path camp. He’s asthmatic, spiritual, and moving up Hill’s ladder. Cal has made a choice to give up his body for Path plans, allowing the Path army to beat him nearly to death so he can crawl into Federal camps, and like a human Trojan Horse, set up a trap for the Path soldiers. One day Cal, on dog detail, spots Bear in the middle of a ruined town. Cal can’t bear to see Bear turned into a vicious weapon, and is forced to kill his commanding officer, setting in play a series of events where James betrays Cal and sets Cal and Bear full throttle into the wilderness to return home to the East Coast. To family. To what Cal hopes is normalcy.
But nothing is normal anymore, except war, unless you are rich and influential in the Path or Federal territories. For most Americans, life is a struggle against things you can’t really control. The Darkest Path is of course about more than a scrappy teenager being chased by nefarious forces, it’s also a platform for Hirsch to explore contemporary issues such as religious and military fascism, family, and more topical issues such as drone attacks, which are responsible for havoc in the American west during this second Civil War. Cal witnesses the death of innocents first hand and is powerless.
In fact, Cal is powerless throughout most of the novel. Hirsch grinds Cal up, making him suffer as he tries to work his way back to Ithaca, like a teenage Odysseus with a dog companion instead of a host of mighty warriors. He gets beaten, almost sold out, thrown into cells, and thrown to the ground dozens of times in his quest to go home. If action is your cup of tea, Path packs it in. Fist fights, RPGs, fumbled rifles, helicopter attacks, and even a contemporary Wolverines--a group of teenagers fighting Red Dawn style against their ex-countrymen, keep the action rolling, rolling, rolling.
Cal’s a thoughtful protagonist, despite the violence he contributes to, and his on-going feats of deception, which is mostly a by product of Nathan Hill’s Path training, and his natural ability to find trouble; he’s able to manipulate the situation to his benefit, without malice. Hirsch sets up Cal as a dehumanized figure in the Path regime. And in many ways The Darkest Path is a young man’s journey towards humanization again. He has to learn to trust himself, to trust others, even though he is burning from his younger brother’s betrayal. He gets to learn a little about love, too, from the equally broken Nat, who gets tangled up with Cal after she leads an explosive raid against Path forces. But mostly Cal learns that life throws punches, and that there are consequences for your actions, and that memory is not always reality. Alec, one of his transient friends, and a member of the rich elite (his father is a Hollywood big shot) confronts Cal's notions about returning to an America that no longer exists. “The future is coming whether you like it or not . I promise you, in a few years, we’ll all wonder what it is we got so worked up about.” Hirsch could easily be talking about American politics, or the American Dream, or even how Generation X’s middle class America is falling apart in the wake of economic crisis, political ineptness, and general apathy towards serving one's country, community, or even family. One of the covers Cal uses to explain why he and his dog are out in the wilderness is that he is camping with his father, something the Path would approve of, fostering self-reliance and male bonding. It’s a good cover for the young protagonist, and an open yearning for parental structure and love, something Hill’s Path forces want to provide, but fail to do.
One of the more touching motifs in the novel is the songs Cal remembers from his childhood, and like a homing beacon, the song's memory pulls him deeper and deeper into a country torn to shreds, "Moonlight road/Why don't you turn me on around?/Moonlight road/Why don't you light my way home?" And that's the exigency of the novel, of the conflict, a yearning for security, love, and warmth. A place where one isn't judged by the path one takes, or has taken. The theme echoes through the characters, teenagers, and parents Cal meets on the way, particularly the aforementioned Nat, one of the cute girls Cal gets to spend some close time with. And these orphaned kids are not unlike the children of poverty that is resting in the real cradle of America. In the end there isn't much difference between Cal and Nat and the children of broken homes and broken families who struggle to make ends in a country where the one percent control the power.
As the novel chases towards the end, Cal and James are reunited as the military action focuses its beam towards the Lighthouse, a recurring symbol through the book, where Cal is confronted with Nathan Hill, and his own choice, to either allow further death to occur or to be a force for life, for light. Hirsch doesn't offer an easy conclusion, the novel concludes, like most good speculative fiction, with more questions, plenty of what if scenarios, candy for the mind, indeed.