Delacorte Press, 2011
Martin Maple, raised in island isolation on mechanical milk
George, a Friend
Kelvin, an absent founding father
Darla, a go-getter with a monster truck
Lane, performance artist, keeper of her own secrets
Nigel, shadow leader of a not-so-Peaceable Kingdom
Chet, underestimated gardener
Felix, a different kind of weaver of webs
Henry, sneaky peanut roaster
Trent, small but responsible
Martin’s Dad & Mom, alive in absence
Is the best leader for a recently deserted world a boy who has grown up without people?
worldview & intention achievement
The world in The Only Ones is our world, up until page 15. Then it is our world with one major difference: nearly every human in it has disappeared in an instant. The realization of this is slow, however, because it’s seen through the eyes of Martin Maple, a young boy who has lived on a small island (possibly somewhere in New England) for his whole life. His education consists of working on a machine with his father. He doesn’t know what the machine is, just how it is put together. He has one book of fantasy and sci-fi stories that keeps him entertained.
Two things occur to help Martin grow up. When Martin is 9 years old, he meets a friend. He’s not supposed to have friends so George remains a secret. George has access to books, and soon Martin treats George as his own personal librarian and not much else. Not being socialized, Martin has a slippery grasp on what friendship requires. Then, when Martin is 10, his father leaves to find the last piece for the machine. He doesn’t return–his empty boat washes up on shore on Martin’s 11th birthday. The next summer, there are no summer people on the island. Martin realizes that something is going on. He’s not exactly lonely, but he does want to find his father. So he leaves the island for the first time, almost 13 years old.
The world has been left to itself for a couple of years when Martin finds his first town. He’s nearly eaten by a bear in a library. Luckily, his upbringing gives him the instinct to escape and the wherewithal to steal the fox that the bear had in its mouth for his own meal. This is when Martin meets Kelvin. Kelvin looks like nothing more than a skinny kid in a cape, but he’s very self-assured. He tells Martin that everyone on Earth has disappeared, except for the inhabitants of Xibalba. By way of explanation he says:
“You know it’s actually spelled with an ‘X,’ but sounds like an ‘Sh,’ as in ‘Who gives a Xibalba?’ You just find it. Like the rest of them did. You’ll know you’re close when you smell the nuts.” (34)
And (a bit incredibly) that’s what Martin does.
From this point on the book starts to come into its own, and its intentions become clearer. It’s part mystery, part exploration of society, part whimsical speculative fantasy. What it surprisingly isn’t is a story of how the kids in Xibalba survive–they just loot towns with a monster truck (belonging to Darla, a nominal leader).
That’s a refreshing aspect for me as a reader–I’ve read many a survival narrative this year, and while I enjoy the permutations, it was refreshing to see this perspective. At least at this point, they haven’t entered the territory of The Road because nothing apocalyptic has really happened, just something Rapture-iffic. So the Earth is eminently plunderable. Each citizen gets his or her own house and each contributes a skill to society, which therefore ends up being barter-based. So basically what they’re left with is how to grapple with what happened to them.
There’s no way to know why everyone disappeared, or know how. They have to come up with their own mythologies. As we come to meet the inhabitants of Xibalba and their quirks (believe me, there are quirks galore), we also learn that there’s already some tragic history to the town. Starmer drops little hints at this, simultaneously profiling characters, moving their individual arcs forward, and setting elements in place so that Martin becomes the catalyst of activity and hope in Xibalba, while bringing the plot around again to his mysterious machine. He wants to tie everything together neatly and leave us knowing not only what happened, but what will happen in this world he’s built.
That’s a lot to do in one book, and what makes The Only Ones fall a little short as a reading experience is this ambition to create a neatly-folded Möbius strip of a book to give to the reader. At the risk of ***SPOILING THE PLOT***, as I got further into it, I couldn’t help but compare it to the 2010 Newbery Medal winner, When You Reach Me, because of one certain similarity, and having this one come up short. Because When You Reach Me didn’t try to explain everything. That’s totally unfair of me to do, I know.
While I would occasionally fall into the world of The Only Ones because of the tantalizing nature of the empty world and the delicious little details that Starmer writes into Xibalba as a place and into the citizens of Xibalba – the first piece of performance art that Lane shows Martin, for example, is wonderful to imagine, and wonderfully written — I couldn’t fully go there. Violence happens in this story and it’s pretty unaffecting.
If I had to put my finger on it I’d say that the main culprit for this it would be the dialogue. Something about it is inauthentic — and maybe the fact that I can’t put my finger on quite what is an indication that it’s just my personal dealio. It’s a little too much old-fashioned, a little too stylized, and then sometimes swerves into modern day interjections like “Mutha!” or describing something as “sweet” while simultaneously spouting things like: “Genuine issue, bona fide. A prophet. I kid you not. The one thing King Kelvin should have respected.” (74). Or on the next page a character says “Whatever you fancy”. Starmer is fond of shortening words for the indication of casual speech – Just sayin. Friggin. Tell ‘em. Everyone was a little too slick and quick to quip, ready to turn into a gangster’s moll or a Hardy Boy.
Would less stylization in speech have made it easier to swallow the premise? Probably not. When Starmer does his big reveal, it’s a lot to swallow. I can’t help but say he’s set himself up for this by providing an explanation. My first reaction was to think that it’s pretty impossible. But it takes guts to put your plot out there with its little belly sticking up, waiting to be poked. So overall I honor his bravery but have to say that if this were an amusement park ride it would be one that sounds really fun, starts off with a satisfying loop, has a stuttering finish, but would be worth recommending to friends nevertheless (unless they are really logical and picky people).
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – I mentioned this in the review, so…. yeah. There’s one big similarity and it’s a spoiler for both books! I shall say no more.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness – Because it also has a naive boy going on a quest as a narrator and they’re both about Society. But this one is set on another world. And it may make you bite your fingernails. Because it has nail-biting suspense–and it’s the first in a trilogy.
digressions & nitpicks
1. One of the things that made me want to read this book in the first place was the cover. I love night scenes with lighted elements. (When I got the book, I wasn’t such a fan of the silhouettes of the kids themselves. Somehow they managed to look like jerks, in silhouette. Which they weren’t, in the book.) It’s drawn by Lisa Ericson, who doesn’t yet have a working website, but who does share a name with an instructor of seated aerobics! What a nice surprise.
2. Some weird things I noted. Or… let me nitpick about stuff. On page 174 a character comes back from the dead to help out with stenography. On page 185 woodgrain is referred to as fiery. Actually “fierier”, which indicates to me that the author is used to thinking of wood in these terms. I kind of like that glimpse into his personal vocabulary. Similarly, on page 305 a smile is described as “impious” but from context I’d say that it should be “impish”.
I got this book from: the library