The Tomorrow series

Finished it a few days ago! Definitely one of my favorite stories of 2011!

The Tomorrow series is a seven-book YA series by John Marsden, starting with Tomorrow, When the War Began. Sort of post-apocalyptic. Well, really more of a war story. I’d never heard of it until I saw a reference to it here. Then it was like, where has this been all my life?

I see the first book is supposed to be a “major motion picture.” Says so right on the cover. I have my doubts. Can the movie version possibly begin to approach the quality of the book? I don’t think I’ve ever liked the movie version of a story half as well as the real book — except for The Hunt for Red October. But that was at least half due to Sean Connery, of course. What an actor! What a voice!

And, of course, it’s voice that makes the Tomorrow series, too — well, and good plotting and excellent writing, too. But the whole seven-book series is told in Ellie’s tight-focused, not-quite-objective point of view. Ellie grows and changes so much through the course of the story, not always in positive ways, but always in believable ways.

Believability is the key to the Tomorrow series. What a job Marsden takes on, getting us to believe that Australia really has been invaded and these kids really are acting on their own, pushing back against the conquest of their home and country.

Here’s why it works:

First, Marsden never explains who the putative invaders are, which is important because there just aren’t any real-world candidates for a country that both would and could conquer Australia. He’s such a good writer you barely notice the care he’s taking to avoid naming the bad guys.

Second, the tight pacing keeps us hurtling forward, so we don’t have time to worry over implausibility — but there’s not much implausibility to worry over, either. All the action really is believable, and you know what I was particularly impressed by? In one of the books, nothing the kids try to do actually works! They try to help a group of New Zealanders take out this super-important airfield, but the Kiwis fail and disappear and the kids have no idea what went wrong. They never find out, either. Then the kids try to hit the airfield themselves, two different ways, and both methods fail,and the kids barely get away, and the book ends with nothing accomplished. And I thought that was great! You know if you’re really taking action against an occupying force, you’re going to have weeks like that.

Though when they actually do get the airfield later, I mean, whoa. Quite a job. I loved it!

Third, the tight focus on a small group of kids is also very important: we don’t get an omniscient view of Australia. We see only what Ellie sees, know only what she knows. Everything’s colored by her reactions. That enhances believability AND heightens the tension. ARE her parents still alive? She doesn’t know and neither do we. Marsden does such a great job keeping the kids on their own — it’s not like there aren’t any adults around, but the kids really CAN’T let the adults take over making the decisions because — well, read the books! It really works out that way and it’s all totally believable.

Fourth, the characters carry the story way more than clever plotting could ever do on its own. Ellie and Homer, Fi and Lee, Robyn and Kevin, Corrie and Chris — they are really, really believable kids. Far from perfect, but so very real. I particularly love Homer — what a guy! Nearly a juvenile delinquent when he’s bored in normal times, but in a good-natured sort of way. Then suddenly he’s got an enemy invasion to face and man, he can really pull it together! The tension between Homer and Ellie is perfect: neither one can stand to let the other be the unquestioned leader. I loved Homer’s “Stand back and let a MAN through” attitude, and the way Ellie would roll her eyes and let him through because he had a crowbar and could get the door open — but then take over again ten minutes later.

And the relationship between Ellie and Homer is perfect, too — not romantic, and yet Ellie can hardly stand to watch a romance develop between Homer and Fi because she nevertheless feels so territorial about Homer, except she knows she’s being mean and jealous and tries so hard to get herself out of the way between them.

That’s what I mean by not perfect but very real. I mean, I have a new model for Perfect Teen Characters now. I mean, I feel I ought to take notes.

I kind of like the occasional perfect character — think Ender in Ender’s Game, for example — but Marsden’s aware he’s putting his characters through a ringer and he doesn’t back off from what that does to them. Like, the small and large nervous breakdowns suffered by various characters — well, I should think so, given what they’re all going through. And the hardening we see in Ellie and Lee as they both do pretty grim things and are hurt by that, in different ways.

In fact, about the only quibble I have is the on-again-off-again relationship between Ellie and Lee. I think it should have been on and then stayed on and deepened. I mean, twice we get moments when Ellie is looking at Lee and she thinks: He will never let me down. When the going gets rough, he will always come through. And yet then then she’ll back off from their relationship. Well, at first that made sense, what with one thing and another, but by the end I couldn’t see it. Steadfast loyalty and competence and the nerve to go right to the wire when things go bad? And she’s at least mostly in love with him, at least some of the time? Well, why is that not all the way in love with him all the time, by the end?

Oh, well!

I think actually there is one more thing besides great characters and clever plotting and great writing that makes these books sink into your mind and heart to stay. That’s the touches of philosophy we see, mainly but not exclusively in the epilogues. Like this, in the first book:

“Loyalty, courage, goodness. I wonder if they’re human inventions too, or if they just are. . . . We’ve got to stick together, that’s all I know. We all drive each other crazy at times, but I don’t want to end up here alone, like the Hermit. Then this really would be Hell. Humans do such terrible things to each other that sometimes my brain tells me they must be evil. But my heart still isn’t convinced.”

And from the second:

“Sometimes you just have to be brave. You have to be strong. Sometimes you just can’t give in to weak thoughts. You have to beat down those devils that get inside your head and try to make you panic. You struggle along, putting one foot a little bit in front of the other, hoping that when you go backwards it won’t be too far backwards, so that when you start forwards again you won’t have too much to catch up. That’s what I’ve learned.”

And, from the last book in the series:

“The old stories used to end with “They all lived happily ever after.” And you’d often hear parents saying: ‘I just want my kids to be happy.’ That’s crap, if you ask me. Life’s about a hell of a lot more than being happy. It’s about feeling the full range of stuff: happiness, sadness, anger, grief, love, hate. If you try to shut one of those off, you shut them all off. I don’t want to be happy. I know I won’t live happily ever after. I want more than that, something richer. I want to go right up close to the beauty and the ugliness. I want to see it all, know it all, understand it all. The richness and the poverty, the joy and the cruelty, the sweetness and the sadness. That’s the best way I can honour my friends who died.”

That’s Ellie. And it’s so in character: these are exactly the sorts of big ideas that teenagers struggle with, and there is so much in the story to prompt a touch of philosophy. I think it adds such depth to the Tomorrow series. I wonder if it’s possible the “major motion picture” captured that. The story would be incomparably lessened if it was turned into nothing but an adventure flick, where things blow up with with huge fireballs but where nothing that happens really touches the characters and, in the end, all the sound and fury signifies nothing.

So I may or may not bother to find the movie . . . but the books are definitely keepers.

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2 thoughts on “The Tomorrow series”

  1. These totally addicted me when I discovered them, too! And I had mixed feelings about Lee: on one hand, I was disappointed by the arc of that relationship, but on the other hand, these books most decidedly don’t feel like they should fall into the happily-ever-after that many romances promise. So it was weirdly satisfactory to read a series that didn’t offer sparkles and rainbows of perfect love at the end — it preserved the gritty, realistic feel for me.

    I was also rather impressed with the very beginning, when they’re just being normal pre-war teenagers — but I had no problem whatsoever distinguishing the characters, or becoming interested in their doings. Not that I was complaining when all the action got going, mind you. (Or bothering to do anything but read more.)

  2. Interesting but useless piece of information, do with it what you will: There’s an Enid Blyton novel where an ersatz version of the famous five go off on a camping adventure and stumble upon a nest of soldiers of an unspecified nationality (but who are obviously Nazi’s) who are laying the groundwork for the invasion of England, and outwit them… I’m not kidding, this isn’t some sort of parody spoof like “Five go Mad in Dorset” this book exists. I think it’s called the Adventurous Four.

    I liked the Ellie/Lee romance. It felt natural given the circumstances. I liked that the guy gets girl bit happened early on in the series. I like that series focused more on what would it be like to be in a relationship during this situation rather than “Two people fall in love during a time of great adversity” (which is a tad overused).

    I’d advise you not to rush out and get the follow up series the Ellie chronicles. They’re not bad but they don’t have the spark of the original series. IMO, John Marsden never quite works out what the story he is telling is. The film was forgettable.

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