Appalachia in The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
by Tina L. Hanlon
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Catching Fire, 2009. Mockingjay, 2010.
Beware: Spoilers Below
Appalachian Coal Fields | Hunting & Black Market | Folk Medicine | Folk Music | Hunger Games | Other Stories | Links | More Quotations
Introduction. The best-selling Hunger Games trilogy is set in the futuristic country of Panem, after North America was destroyed by "the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what sustenance remained" (The Hunger Games, p. 18). The trilogy's teenage narrator, Katniss Everdeen, lives in District 12, "the smallest, poorest district" (Mockingjay, paperback p. 264). Once, early in the first book, she says she heard at school that District 12 is located in what was Appalachia. Although there are few other explicit references to Appalachia, this page outlines links I have found between Appalachian traditions and details in these novels. If you have other ideas about connections between District 12 and Appalachia, or know of others who have written about this topic, please send your thoughts to Tina L. Hanlon.
This section has been revised since publication of its content.
As an essay, this analysis is presented the book
Of Bread, Blood, and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy
McFarland's Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series, 2012.
Edited by Mary Pharr and Leisa A. Clark.
The four topics below are discussed in the published essay in more detail.
Appalachian Coal Fields in a Future World. In Catching Fire Katniss observes, "'It's all that coal dust, from the old days'.... It was in every crack and crevice. Ground into the floorboards" (p. 131). The workers in District 12 are coal miners. Like the other eleven districts, it provides a commodity so that the rulers in the Capitol (located in the Rocky Mountains) can live in luxury, while most people in the districts struggle through lives of deprivation, like many Appalachian mining families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (The Latin root panis, or bread, emphasizes the use of hunger to oppress the people of Panem.) During the years of rebellion and war, Katniss relives her father's death in a mine disaster and worries about her friend Gale being forced to work in dangerous mining conditions, at the mercy of officials who would like to destroy him.
Hunting and Black Market. Katniss' father had taught her to hunt and gather food. Hunting illegally and selling some of what they gather on the black market enable Katniss and her friend Gale to feed their families after their fathers are killed in coal mine disasters. In the end, after District 12 has been firebombed and most of hits residents killed, Katniss and other survivors return to live off the land.
Folk Medicine. Katniss' mother, who was the daughter of an apothecary and left the merchant class to marry a miner, knows folk medicine and all kinds of healing methods. Her daughter Prim learns about healing from her and their skills are needed before and after the rebellion, since modern high-tech medicine is not available to most workers in Panem as it is for affluent citizens and tributes in the Capitol. Although Katniss does not have the healing skills of her mother and sister, her knowledge of plants is helpful during the Hunger Games.
Folk Music. Songs that Katniss remembers from childhood and learned from her father have emotional and symbolic functions in the trilogy. When Rue dies in the first book, Katniss sings a very old lullaby about suffering, love, and hope that she remembers from home, and her children repeat the song at the end of the last book. Folk songs become especially important while Katniss is recovering in isolation from severe injuries during the rebellion in Mockingjay. “Hour after hour of ballads, love songs, mountain airs” pour from her (p. 376). During a wartime wedding in District 13, the only fiddler from District 12 to survive with his instrument attracts attention, and others from their mountain district demonstrate their dancing skills along with Katniss and Prim.
The Hunger Games. Katniss becomes involved in the annual "games," an ordeal designed to keep the population under control by demonstrating that they are helpless, reminding the districts of the Dark Days when the Capitol put down rebellions and destroyed District 13. The reaping, a day of celebration which opens The Hunger Games, includes a public lottery in each district. One male and one female adolescent from each district are chosen to fight in a survivalist ordeal in a vast arena, which continues for days or weeks until the winner is the last one alive. During days of preparation and training, the twenty-four "tributes" are pampered, dressed in lavish costumes, and interviewed like celebrities. The Latinate names of Katniss's flamboyant assistants remind us that these games are like the bloody spectacles in the arenas of ancient Rome. The games and related activities are fully televised, so that viewers who can afford to provide assistance can become sponsors who send supplies to anyone they choose during the games. At age twelve children enter the lottery and for the next six years their name is entered more times for each additional year of age. They may request tesserae, as Katniss and Gale have done to provide more food for their families. Each of those gives them an extra entry in the lottery in exchange for a payment of grain and oil. Although Madge, the mayor's daughter who is Katniss' acquaintance at school, mentions that she could be chosen, people understand that the children of well-connected citizens are not likely to be selected. Before the novels begin, District 12 has had only one victor in the Hunger Games, Haymitch Abernathy, who lives in comfort in a victor's home but became a slovenly drunk as his reaction to the horrors he endured. Katniss survives two rounds of Hunger Games in the first two books, before learning how much the 75th anniversary game, called the Quarter Quell, is affected by growing rebellions against the Capitol.
A Few Other Stories with Similar Themes
Note: Since young adult dystopia is one of the most popular genres of fiction at the time of the Hunger Games books and films, many articles compare this trilogy with other recent novels not listed here. Of Bread, Blood, and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy includes discussion of the series in relation to Shakespeare's Henriad, the Harry Potter and Twilight series, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and other works of fiction and popular culture. Most of the references below are older works that I was familiar with.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, 1948. A chilling short story about the annual lottery in a seemingly ordinary American town, a ritual that ends with a stoning. (In a 2010 interview, Suzanne Collins named Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle as one of the books she rereads.)
1984 by George Orwell, 1949. British dystopia set in a future of global wars. This novel made popular images of constant electronic surveillance and mind control by Big Brother. The Hunger Games are fully televised and in Panem the Capitol has many methods of watching and controlling citizens. (In a 2010 interview and elsewhere, Suzanne Collins named this as one of the books she has reread many times.)
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1954. A modern dystopian Robinsonnade (with parallels to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe), in which some of the schoolboys stranded on an island after a plane crash during World War II turn savage. Their shifting relationships as they struggle for survival in the jungle have parallels in the Hunger Games, which also resemble more recent survivalist "reality TV" game shows with contestants competing on islands and participating in other artificial adventures. (In a 2010 interview, Suzanne Collins named this as one of the books she rereads.)
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin. It explores the morality of sacrificing one innocent life for the greater good of society.
River of Earth (1940) and Sporty Creek (1977) by James Still. Set in the Great Depression, these books are among many novels about the effects of life in Appalachian coal towns on poor working families in the twentieth century. Both novels have especially dismal views of Kentucky coal towns at a time when employment in the mines was unreliable, with work stopping and starting based on market forces and corporate decisions far away from the mines. See details at James Still's Books for and about Children: Bibliography and Study Guide.
The Miner's Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas, 2007. The narrator is a 16-year-old girl in a West Virginia coal town in the 1940s. Both her parents have health problems and her father's illness results from working conditions. This historical novel includes the founding of Arthurdale, a new town established by Eleanor Roosevelt under the New Deal, for West Virginia homesteaders who need jobs, decent homes, and schools—an idealistic experiment that was not able to provide social justice for all. See Appalachian Fiction for Children and Young Adults.
Battle Royale by Koshun Takami is a 1999 Japanese novel that has been much compared to the Hunger Games trilogy. "A 9th grade class is forced to fight each other to the death on a reality television program, demonstrating the lengths to which the government will go to prevent school violence" (WorldCat). See discussion of the connections in the NYT article by Dominus, listed below, which says that Collins never read this novel.
Greek myths and history. Some of the names and traditions of the murderous games played out in an arena are clearly based on stories from the ancient classical period. In the NYT article by Dominus, listed below, Collins noted that she was influenced by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and that the historical figure Spartacus, who led a rebellion of slaves and gladiators, was her inspiration for Katniss' career.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, 1874. Collins named Katniss Everdeen after Bathsheba Everdene, Hardy's heroine in one of his most popular novels of rural life in southern England. After inheriting a prosperous farm, Bathsheba dares to manage it herself but has personal and professional problems managing her own life in the rural community and her relationships with very different men who love her.
Links and References
Note: Some of the blogs and other web pages that speculate about and try to map out the location of places in the Hunger Games novels reveal limited knowledge of Appalachia. The emphasis on coal towns does not restrict the location of District 12 to West Virginia, for example. There are few specific geographic or cultural details tying scenes to particular places in the U.S. Readers ask why Collins (who is not Southern) reads these novels with a Southern accent but did not use dialect in the written novels. However, even if Collins had been interested in establishing regional identity through dialects, since the trilogy is set in an unspecified future time, hundreds of years after coal mining began in the Appalachian region, the speech of citizens in District 12 would not be identical to Appalachian English today. In commenting on the first film, released in 2012, writers who speculate about why the filmmakers chose western NC for filming of District 12 don't always realize or acknowledge that in the first book Collins identifies Appalachia as the past name of District 12.
Beagley, David. "Review: Of Blockbusters and Bestsellers." The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children's Literature 16 (Sept./Oct. 2012). Online journal review of Of Bread, Blood, and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy, and Genre, Reception and Adaptation in the "Twilight" Series (Ed. Anne Morey, Ashgate, 2012).
Bird, Elizabeth. "Review of the Day: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins." "A Fuse #8 Production." School Library Journal 28 June 2008. Has links to other blog reviews and many reader comments.
Bird, Elizabeth. "Why Can't Katniss Have an Accent? The Role of the Southerner in American Children's Literature." "A Fuse #8 Production." School Library Journal 20 Sept. 2010. Includes video clip of Suzanne Collins reading from the first chapter of Mockingjay (imitating a Southern accent for Katniss' voice).
Dominus, Susan. "Suzanne Collins's War Stories for Kids." The New York Times Magazine 8 Apr. 2011. Based on a rare personal interview, the article discusses the author's family history and her views on war, popular culture, absent parents. Collins stressed that she was writing books about war for adolescents, not an allegory of adolescence.
Dreher, Kwakiutl L. Review of Of Bread, Blood, and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. Journal of Popular Culture 46 (Aug. 2013): 909-912. Available online through library services.
Gresehover, Ehren and Tammy Oler. "Hunger Games Tourism: Visit Scenic District 12 in North Carolina." Slate 27 Mar. 2012. The Slate Group, a Division of the Washington Post Company. Slide show in online publication of abandoned mill town, Henry River, NC, where District 12 scenes in The Hunger Games were filmed. The Lionsgate film directed by Gary Ross (co-scripted by Suzanne Collins) was released Mar. 23, 2012. See also Slate review of the film by Dana Stevens, 22 Mar. 2012, and other articles on the books and film in this site.
Hanlon, Tina L. "Coal Dust and Ballads: Appalachia and District 12." Of Bread, Blood, and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series, no. 35. Ed. Mary Pharr and Leisa A. Clark. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. 59-68. This AppLit page provides an outline of this essay. Goodreads page on this book. Other reviews of this book are listed above and below.
Hardy, Elizabeth Baird. "Let the Hunger Games Filming Begin!" Hogwarts Professor: Thoughts for Serious Readers. 2 Feb. 2011. Blog entry by a resident of NW North Carolina, with photos and interesting observations about places in Appalachia that would be appropriate settings for the upcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games.
Hardy, Elizabeth Baird. "EBH: Don’t go down in the Hole – Coal Mining Life in District 12 and in Present-Day Appalachia." Hogwarts Professor: Thoughts for Serious Readers. 14 April 2010. Blog entry with interesting comments on Appalachia and District 12, including consideration of stereotypes and treatment by mainstream media.
Jordan, Tina. "Suzanne Collins on the Books She Loves." EW.com: Entertainment Weekly. 13 Aug. 2010. Short interview.
Modisett, Cara Ellen. "Movies in the Mountains." Blue Ridge Country 9 July 2012. Article on the business of making movies and related tourism in the Appalachian mountains, including the recent Lionsgate film The Hunger Games, filmed in western North Carolina.
Parsons, Rachel. "Appalachian Girl Power: A Review of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games." The Princesston. 7 April 2012. Blog by Diane Landy, a native of Princeton, WV, reprints this review by a native of Mercer County, WV, an undergraduate at East Tennessee State Univ. For a class assignment, Parsons wrote this enthusiastic, thoughtful review of Katniss as a strong Appalachian heroine.
Tan, Susan. Review of Of Bread, Blood, and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. The Lion and the Unicorn 37 (Jan. 2013): 102-105. Available online through library services such as Project Muse.
Note: Page numbers are different in hardback and paperback editions. Unless noted as paperback, page numbers on this page are from hardback editions.
"Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces. But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed. The reaping isn't until two" (The Hunger Games, p. 4).
"Even hundreds of years ago they mined coal here. Which is why our miners have to dig so deep" (The Hunger Games, p. 41).
"I can't let the Capitol hurt Prim. [Prim is Katniss' younger sister.]
And then it hits me. They already have. They have killed her father in those wretched mines. They have sat by as she almost starved to death. They have chosen her as a tribute, then made her watch her sister fight to the death in the Games. She has been hurt far worse than I had at the age of twelve" (Catching Fire, pp. 122-23).
"As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. The mines stay shut for two weeks, and by that time half of District 12 is starving. The number of kids signing up for tesserae soars, but they often don't receive their grain. Food shortages begin, and even those with money come away from stores empty-handed. When the mines reopen, wages are cut, hours extended, miners sent into blatantly dangerous work sites. The eagerly awaited food promised for Parcel Day arrives spoiled and defiled by rodents. The installations in the square see plenty of action as people are dragged in and punished for offenses so long overlooked we've forgotten they are illegal....I can't help thinking that everything he [Gale] sees will only strengthen his reserve to fight back. The hardships in the mines, the tortured bodies in the square, the hunger on the faces of his family" (Catching Fire, pp. 132-33).
When the black market warehouse is burned down: "The heat from the flames melts the surrounding snow and a black trickle runs across my shoes. 'It's all that coal dust, from the old days,' I say. It was in every crack and crevice. Ground into the floorboards. It's amazing the place didn't go up before" (Catching Fire, p. 131).
"She can sense things before anyone else. Like a canary in one of your coal mines....'What's that?'... 'It's a bird that we take down into the mines to warn us if there's bad air, .... It stops singing first. That's when you should get out. But if the air's too bad, it dies, yes. And so do you.' I don't want to talk about dying songbirds. They bring up thoughts of my father's death and Rue's death and Maysilee Donner's death and my mother inheriting her songbird. Oh, great, and now I'm thinking of Gale, deep down in that horrible mine, with President Snow's threat hanging over his head. So easy to make it look like an accident down there. A silent canary, a spark, and nothing more" (Catching Fire, pp. 338-39).
"Almost nothing remains of District 12. A month ago, the Capitol's firebombs obliterated the poor coal miners' houses in the Seam, the shops in the town, even the Justice Building. The only area that escaped incineration was the Victor's Village. I don't know why exactly. Perhaps so anyone forced to come here on Capitol business would have somewhere reasonable to stay. The odd reporter. A committee assessing the condition of the coal mines. A squad of Peacekeepers checking for returning refugees" (Mockingjay, paperback p. 3).
"Burning. Still burning, I think, numbly. The fires at the coal mines belch black smoke in the distance. There's no one left to care, though. More than ninety percent of the district's population is dead. The remaining eight hundred or so are refugees in District 13--which, as far as I'm concerned, is the same thing as being homeless for ever" (Mockingjay, paperback p. 7)
"The citizens of District 12 had no organized resistance movement of their own. No say in any of this. They only had the misfortune to have me. Some survivors think it's good luck, though, to be free of District 12 at last. To have escaped the endless hunger and oppression, the perilous mines, the lash of our final Head Peacekeeper, Romulus Thread. To have a new home at all is seen as a wonder since, up until a short time ago, we hadn't even known that District 13 still existed" (Mockingjay, paperback p. 7).
In Mockingjay, Katniss has conflicting feelings about Gale's proposal to blow up the Capitol's army inside a mountain called the Nut, in District 2, the only district still controlled by the Capitol and President Snow. At first Katniss thinks, "I want everyone in that mountain dead. Am about to say so. But then... I'm also a girl from District 12. Not President Snow. I can't help it. I can't condemn someone to the death he's suggesting.... 'The Nut's an old mine. It'd be like causing a massive coal mining accident.' Surely the words are enough to make anyone from 12 think twice about the plan.
'But not so quick as the one that killed our fathers,' he retorts. 'Is that everyone's problem? that our enemies might have a few hours to reflect on the fact that they're dying, instead of just being blown to bits?'
'You don't know how those District Two people ended up in the Nut,' I say. 'They may have been coerced. They may be held against their will. Some are our own spies. Will you kill them, too?'" (paperback p. 239)
"I imagine the hell inside the mountain. Sirens wailing. Lights flickering into darkness. Stone dust choking the air. The shrieks of panicked, trapped beings stumbling madly for a way out, only to find the entrances, the launchpad, the ventilation shafts themselves clogged with earth and rock trying to force its way in. Live wires flung free, fires breaking out, rubble making a familiar path a maze. People slamming, shoving, scrambling like ants as the hill presses in, threatening to crush their fragile shells....
On the day my father died, the sirens went off during my school lunch. No one waited for dismissal, or was expected to. The response to a mine accident was something outside the control of even the Capitol. I ran to Prim's class. I still remember her, tiny at seven, very pale, but sitting straight up with her hands folded on her desk. Waiting for me to collect her as I'd promised I would if the sirens ever sounded. She sprang out of her seat, grabbed my coat sleeve, and we wove through the streams of people pouring out on to the streets to pool at the main entrance of the mine. We found our mother clenching the rope that had been hastily strung to keep the crowd back....
The lifts were screeching, burning up and down their cables as they vomited smoke-blackened miners into the light of day. With each group came cries of relief, relatives diving under the rope to lead off their husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings.... I knelt on the ground and pressed my hands into the cinders, wanting so badly to pull my father free. If there's a more helpless feeling than trying to reach someone you love who's trapped underground, I don't know it. The wounded. The bodies. The waiting through the night.... And then finally, at dawn, the grieved expression on the face of the mine captain that could only mean one thing" (Mockingjay, paperback pp. 242-43).
"My father. He seems to be everywhere today. Dying in the mine. Singing his way into Peeta's muddled consciousness. Flickering in the look Boggs gives me as he protectively wraps the blanket around my shoulders. I miss him so badly it hurts" (Mockingjay, paperback p. 246).
After the bombing of the enemies inside the Nut: "A young man staggers out from the station, one hand pressed against a bloody cloth at his cheek, the other dragging a gun. When he trips and falls to his face, I see the scorch marks down the back of his shirt, the red flesh beneath. And suddenly, he's just another burn victim from a mine accident" (p. 250). When she confronts the man, she can't give him a reason not to shoot her. She says, "We blew up your mine. You burned my district to the ground. We've got every reason to kill each other. So do it. Make the Capitol happy. I'm done killing their slaves for them" (p. 251).
"I come from a mining town. Since when do miners condemn other miners to that kind of death, and then stand by to kill whoever manages to crawl from the rubble?...The rebels are not your enemy! We all have one enemy, and it's the Capitol! This is our chance to put an end to their power, but we need every district person to do it!... Please! Join us!" (pp. 252-53)
"We learn to keep busy again. Peeta bakes. I hunt. Haymitch drinks until the liquor runs out, and then raises geese until the next train arrives. Fortunately, the geese can take pretty good care of themselves. We're not alone. A few hundred others return because, whatever has happened, this is our home. With the mines closed, they plow the ashes into the earth and plant food. Machines from the Capitol break ground for a new factory where we will make medicines. Although no one seeds it, the Meadow turns green again" (p. 452).
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