Mara was born and raised on Tombaugh, a space station inhabited only by the brightest and best humans and where these humans live uncontaminated by earth’s gravity, sun, and polluted atmosphere. So she’s very unhappy when her parents force her to spend time with her aunt, uncle, and cousin on Earth, or ‘Dirt,’ as it’s called on Tombaugh.
Mara, her cousin Beth, and Beth’s best friend Jael take turns narrating the story of their adjustment to the new school they all attend, new relationships, and each other. Their perspectives are different-Mara scornful, Beth idealistic, and Jael pragmatic. The author is male but he is able to voice each girl’s perspective distinctly, consistently, and realistically for the most part-a difficult task indeed. I felt that the secondary characters were not given the same level of attention and seemed one-dimensional, especially the boys. In the end the story really becomes Mara’s almost exclusively at which point switching perspectives seemed less of a tool and more a gimmick but these are small matters.
Life on Dirt is often touching, painful, funny, and always entertaining. The story is complex but not complicated as it touches on themes of acceptance, relationships, date rape, self image, racsism, and more.
The historical backdrop of Down to Dirt is altered. Due to a few political mishaps, the civil rights movement is delayed and in 2021, the time of the novel, people of colour are in the relatively early stages of their struggle for equal rights. I thought the changes in history could have been revealed earlier. It is possible that I missed some cues but I was quite confused for about a quarter of the novel. Beth’s best friend, Jael is black and her encounters with racism are a central theme of the book. Mara comes to Earth with the belief that black people are inherently inferior but eventually comes around to the idea that Jael-kind and brilliant-was not an aberration. I did note that other characters of colour were just in the periphery and all seemed to have a similar measured, almost romanticised response to blatant racism.
Down to Dirt is a science-fiction, subtly dystopian YA novel, but like all good novels, it’s ultimately about the characters and readers who are not huge science fiction fans will find much to enjoy in the story. Much of the scientific background is provided by Mara who is required to keep a journal which she does with typical teen sarcasm and through that guise fills the reader in on things her journal reader should not have to be told. Occasionally it felt like a lot of information being dumped at once but again not enough to detract from the story.
I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series.