Book Review: While We Run, Karen Healey

Before I review While We Runthe sequel to the fantastic When We Wakea brief story to convey my depths of love both for Karen Healey, and for these books set in a futuristic Australia where resource scarcity and global strife are being used by the government to advance an isolationist and extremist political policy. You see, I’d been busy around the release date of this book, and I sort of missed the day of, which meant that I happened to wander into the bookstore and see it on the shelf, set out like any other book (thankfully, it was faced out, as Karen Healey should be at all times). I was so excited upon seeing it that I made a little squeak of excitement, unnerving both the bookstore cat and another patron, and I full-on faceplanted into the shelf, for reasons that are, honestly, unclear to me. Was I trying to hug the shelf? The book? The bookstore ghost? Whatever the reason, I found myself eye to eye with the book’s cover, glasses askew (and thankfully not broken), and nose stinging. Amazingly, I managed to not break my nose or give myself a nosebleed, which is good, because I couldn’t have afforded an entire case of books after saturating them in blood.

At any rate, I promptly picked up and bought the book and then scuttled out of the bookstore before I incurred any additional injuries. Let this be a warning to you, friends: Books can be extremely dangerous, and woe betide the unwary who doesn’t take proper precautions in a bookstore. You never know when they’re going to strike, and which of your most vulnerable parts a robust book might go after. I may have escaped with my life this time, but I’m on my guard. All it takes it one blow from the wrong angle, and you’re a goner.

Much like Tegan Oglietti, actually, who was shot by accident when a sniper was aiming for the prime minister. Her family agreed to allow her to be cryopreserved for a future attempt at revival, believing, like Tegan, that such research might benefit future generations. But when Tegan was revived, it was into a world of government conspiracies, intense resource scarcity, and mixed allegiances. It wasn’t the world she was hoping people would make while she spent 100 years on ice, and she set out to change it, even though the adults around her were determined to prevent her.

When We Wake traced Tegan’s awakening, both literal and metaphorical, in the new Australian landscape, along with her escape from the government that declared it owned her and could do as it liked with her body since it had invested so much in her. While We Run is about what came next, told not from Tegan’s point of view but from that of her partner, lover, and friend Abdi Taalib. Abdi, in Australia by special permission, is furious at the civil rights abuses he sees in the nation, and encounters a friend in Tegan, but he’s breaking under the strain of being first a prisoner and puppet of the Australian government, and then a man on the run, trying to get home.

Abdi paints a slightly different picture of the world than Tegan. Unlike Tegan, his family is still alive, and he has a home, with deep ties to the family compound and his family roots. He misses his family, and has wanted nothing but return ever since he arrived in Australia. While he’s as horrified and outraged by the government’s abuse of migrants as Tegan, the low drumbeat of home calls to him, over and over. In While We Run, he’s faced with a difficult choice: Continue to fight, or leave?

It’s an honest and sharp depiction of a young man who doesn’t necessarily want to be a hero, and experiences deep internal conflict. These kinds of battles can be long, dangerous, and rough, and it’s not necessarily what he signed up for, even though he knows first-hand about the abuses the government is heaping on migrants. The Australian government is preparing to turn immigrants into an effective slave labour force for a colony ship that will carry the wealthiest and most powerful away to a better life — except there’s a catch, and that catch could be used to broker a solution for everyone.

While We Run explores ties of family, nation, and humanity, and makes the point that doing the right thing is not necessarily easy — something many of us already know, but can still struggle with. For Abdi, in Australia only on sufferance and watching his family attacked at home because of his failure to play the political game, the stakes are even higher, and the reader can understand why flight over fight might seem like the better option. How many of us are put in the position to consider the lives and safety of our loved ones over those of thousands of people? We’d all like to think we’d do the right thing and make the grand gesture, but things can feel rather different when we’re faced with the reality.

As in Healey’s other books, While We Run is distinguished by a diverse array of characters who are naturally integrated into the text, rather than being used to provide special lessons or score diversity points. Healey’s ability to value and celebrate diversity is notable in an era when more audiences are clamouring for diversity in YA, as she’s been doing it for years. These two books are probably her strongest and most stunning yet, and I hope they reach the wide audience they deserve not only because they’re excellent, but because they illustrate what I view as the new future of diversity in YA and literature in general. Healey commits herself to telling lots of stories, and to showing lots of people — I can’t wait to see what she does next.