I had a conversation earlier this week with a fellow reader about how young adult dystopias, for the most part, fall flat and fail to convince. The “governments” are often bizarre social experiments that couldn’t last. The economics don’t work. The politics don’t work. Occasionally, books like Mark Dunn’s Under the Harrow come along to show other authors how it’s done. There is a social experiment at the heart of this book. In valley somewhere along the 41st parallel, there are 11,000 people living in a curious Victorian flavored society. Somehow, they have been passed over by 121 years of history. As the novel develops, we learn that there was a conspiracy inside and outside of the valley working to keep the experiment going. Under the Harrow opens just a few weeks before the wheels come off the whole enterprise.
Dingley Dell was founded in 1882 by a group of orphans who were abandoned by their parents and caretakers after being told that the adults had caught a deadly disease. Their only knowledge of the outside world comes from a ninth edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens, and a King James Bible. By 2003, when Under the Harrow Opens, the valley and its people are living a lot like the characters in Dickens’s novels. The difference is that they are able to trade with the remaining outsiders (or so the Dinglians believe) for a few goods and commodities they aren’t able to get from their environs. Most people are content. A few, like our narrator, Frederick Trimmers, and his friends, have suspicions and questions that they can’t just let go.
As the novel opens, a woman has just been pushed to get death after arguing with her husband and Trimmers’s nephew has disappeared into the Outworld. The two unconnected events are just the start of the unraveling of the Dinglian conspiracy. What begins as a slow exploration of a curiously anachronistic society becomes a tense thriller as Trimmers and his friends learn more and more about the truth of Dingley Dell. By the end of the book, I was inhaling whole chapters just to find out what would happen next.
By the end of the novel, it is clear just how many people were involved and just how many resources were needed to keep Dingley Dell isolated for over a century. I loved this. Instead of being asked (as some authors of the more outrageous dystopian novels ask us) to just swallow weird factions, overly complicated methods of messing with the love lives of teenagers, and all the rest, Dunn brings a whopping dose of verisimilitude to the Dinglian experiment. Shortly into Under the Harrow, our protagonists learn that the whole thing is going to be shut down because it is no longer returning on the investment their controllers have put into it. I found the conflict between shadowy business concern and the Dinglians incredibly believable.
The best part of Under the Harrow, however, is the language. Dunn has mastered the Dickensian pastiche. Trimmers, the narrator, has pithy and pointed observations just like Dickens did. The sentences meander and the vocabulary is deliciously varied. Many of the characters in the book took their names from Dickens’s cast of characters, so it’s a delight to see heroes with the names of villains and vice versa running around this book. I had a very good time reading this book.