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April Discussion – Panic by Lauren Oliver

Panic was certainly a very different read from Never Fall Down. Overall we had mixed reactions to this book. Some of us could accept the premise, enjoyed the pace and tension, and felt that Oliver had really built up a sense of anxiety and pressure and that she delivered on a novel that dealt with teen isolation and boredom. For others in the group the novel just didn’t work. No one seemed to actually hate the novel but members felt that it was a let-down as either the characters or situation did not ring true for them or that the ending in particular was improbable. Having read and being impressed by Oliver’s other works we had gone into this novel with high expectations.

We began by talking about the issues that face teens or, more specifically, teens in small-town America. We looked at some newspaper articles that reported some risk-taking behaviours occurring in these isolated communities; playing chicken on the road, drugs, alcohol, violence, murder and sex. We thought that Oliver had explored some very topical issues to create her contemporary thriller. The problems of poverty, parental neglect, parental drug and alcohol abuse were debated. We also discussed that for some in modern society there are fewer traditional rites of passage, so as in the case of Carp, a town of 12 000 in the middle of nowhere, the teens make their own initiation ceremonies. Add a bonus prize of $67 000 and the stakes are high; past seasons of Panic resulted in permanent disability, suicide and accidental death. It was interesting to discuss also the social stratification that seems so apparent in some of these communities and the feelings of inadequacy, inequality and futility that being on the lower end of the social scale can engender in the young. Looking at the Panic competition from these teens’ point of view we could understand the allure of the game. The sense of invincibility that some teens possess was also highlighted.

The issue of the $1 a day tax collected from the town’s students and placed into the jackpot did not work for all of us. For some, it seemed to be reasonable, but others wondered how this collection, competition and distribution could be kept a secret from the adults in the community. This led to a discussion of other circumstances, including some real life examples, where adults and community officials have turned a blind eye to certain behaviours in small towns and communities. We noted that the Ingham gang rapes of the 1970s fall into this category and mentioned that in an Australian context the 1988 film Shame explores this concept. In some instances the adults, including elected officials and police, are actually encouraging and benefiting from the behaviour. We talked then about the morality of a society that ignores or actively promotes the bad behaviour of its young. It was clear that there were few positive models of parenting or adulthood in the lives of these children.

Some of us thought that some of the scenes, for example, the scene at the water tower, were particularly well written and evoked the mood of suspense and anxiety. Those of us who had grown up in small communities could well identify with the claustrophobia of growing up in this environment where, for some teens, there is ostensibly no way out of the drudgery of poverty and the accompanying fear of the future. What we thought Oliver was very successful at was capturing an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness of the teens but it would have been helpful if Oliver had spent a little more time outlining the history of Panic – why and by whom did it start in the first place?

We had mixed feelings about the validity of the treatment of Heather and Lily by their mother. It was realistic to some but a few of us thought it was unlikely that the girls would have lasted so long in a homeless situation without being discovered by the authorities and thought the situation was contrived. For some, their mother was “too clichéd” in her behaviours. Again, a few of us thought the characters and their motivations were quite well explored yet others did not engage with them. We thought that Dodge was an interesting character but noted that he is so caught up in avenging his sister’s accident he is unwilling to concede that Dayna is happy and is actually moving on with her own life. Although Oliver is certainly unafraid to tackle some big issues such as sexual exploitation (with Nat, willing to be used by an older man as she thinks he is her ticket out of town), disabilities, and drug abuse, it seems she has perhaps attempted too much with this story and character development suffered because of this.

Although for Australian readers the idea of having wild animals as pets seems completely unrealistic we recognized that the laws regarding this in the United States are quite different. We spent some time discussing the symbolism of the tigers as beasts of the wild, power, freedom, control but the ending felt forced and a little rushed for some of us. It was obvious that Heather was going to win the competition but interestingly, a few were not surprised that Bishop was the judge whilst some of us did not expect that twist.

It was acknowledged that this will remain quite a popular read. For those of us who have enjoyed Oliver’s other works Before I Fall and the Delirium trilogy we were a little disappointed. So for a few of us this story had all the elements that should have worked but it fell a little flat. The difficulty of placing this in a school library is that the language and pace are most probably appropriate for year 9 level; however, the themes and content of the novel place it in senior fiction. We thought that the cover was not representative of the content and a suggestion that perhaps a graphic from the watchtower scene would be a much more appropriate cover that would appeal to both genders.