REVIEW: Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok
At the onset of Benjamin Parzybok’s Sherwood Nation, the entire West Coast is suffering from a severe drought. Chaos reigns: Southern California is largely abandoned and gangs of dehydrated desperados rule the area between every city-state. Massive migrations east, where conditions are marginally better, have caused the US government to blockade the Rockies, sending only basic humanitarian aid further west.
Portland, Oregon, is becoming a desert. Mountains once capped in snow year-round have become brown heaps on the horizon. Summer stretches long into what were once winter months. Rivers have dried and the greenery is gone. Once towering, moss-covered trees are clumps of fire prone bones reaching into the sky. Water rations are down to one unit gallon a day. Every industry has dwindled. Youth unemployment is in the ninetieth percentile. The mayor, whose tenuous control is in constant jeopardy with his own unpopularity, City Council and the National Guard, proposes building a near-hundred-mile trench to the Pacific.
Amidst this dying city is Renee, a 20-something part-time student and out-of-work barista with a mind for water activism. When her first heist goes wrong — the intention is to steal a truck of black market water heading to the wealthy West Hills — Renee finds herself handing out unmarked gallons in the fog of shock. It is a selfless act in grave times caught on tape and aired by the news. Instantly a heroine and criminal at once, she is dubbed Maid Marian.
A fugitive with her face broadcast citywide, Renee flees to the poor and largely lawless neighborhoods of the Northeast. Here, the persona of Maid Marian takes over. She realizes that she has the means to make a change. Supporters first trickle and then pour in. Eventually, under her leadership, a select bloc of the city cedes, forming the tiny, community-run nation of Sherwood.
The country of Sherwood achieves idealistic goals. People bolstered on hope are happy to perform mandatory volunteerism: clearing the debris from many aggravated riots, banding together to create safe streets, saving tax rations to build small farms and reopen schools. But Renee, as Maid Marian, finds herself a dictator. It interferes with her love life and causes constant questioning of her sense of self. The mayor of Portland, desperate to regain control, is spiteful of her bike-riding Rangers, celebrity status and success, and the National Guard plays both sides.
Though the book is action-driven, Maid Marian’s merry band is equally compelling. Characters remain true to themselves as the heat of summer claims lives and sanity, but, as the plot requires, do not remain completely static. Her boyfriend, Zach, the brain, begins as one of the few employed, a creative at the ad agency in charge of the mayor’s campaign. Bea, Renee’s roommate and loyal friend, acts as Little John. Jamal, son of Gregor, a drug lord and longstanding neighborhood kingpin, is her leading soldier. Nevel, Zach’s coworker, digs a tunnel beneath his house to no apparent purpose beside the vague fantasy of saving his family from the plight of end-times within its subterranean walls. And Christopher is the mayor’s partner, backbone and confidante.
Rich with haunting descriptions of a place once wild and now starved and poignant human dilemmas of basic survival, Sherwood Nation is a manifesto on how communities can work together to improve the greater good that does not shy from, sugarcoat, or exaggerate the corruptions of power and outcomes of rebellion. For a political treatise set in an imaginable apocalypse, Parzybok’s second novel is refreshing in its lack of heavy-handed allegory or pedantic utopian preaching. Maid Marian reaches beyond herself to create peace and solidarity in hopeless times. Threatened, others desire her demise and position. It is a clever, if cautionary tale.
by Benjamin Parzybok