In which I share my anxieties about re-reading books that I loved when I was younger, and thoughts on Code Orange by Caroline B. Cooney.
I’m a re-reader.
My TBR is endless and massive, various books with bookmarks partway through that serve as an I’ll-finish-you-one-day promise are scattered throughout my room, new books are published every year, new subjects intrigue me every hour—and yet, I often find myself re-reading an old favourite.
There are books that I have re-read and loved for many years. Les Miserables, Little Women, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The Book Thief, The Phantom of the Opera—to name just a few. Each time I pick up one of those books, I know there won’t be any surprises. I might get something new out of it, but I’m never going to suddenly find that I dislike it. That’s comforting. These books are like old friends I can always count on.
But there are other books that I loved without ever picking up again, for whatever reason. Or, if I did, it was so many years ago, and I’ve changed since then. I don’t remember anything about the book except the premise or the setting or a character—and the fact that I loved it.
The thought of re-reading these books terrifies me.
I dread the thought of picking up one of those books again and not liking it as much as I did the first time. Perhaps not even liking it at all.
This is such a real source of anxiety for me that I feel sure it must have happened at least once, but I’ve racked my brain and can’t think of any examples. Still, the worry persists, and has made me hesitate to reread many a book.
Recently, I shoved my fears aside and re-read two such books in a row. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
Code Orange, by Caroline B. Cooney
In school, we read this book as part of a science unit on infectious disease. I really enjoyed that unit and this book. I thought the premise was excellent: a teenage boy living in early 2000’s New York City—still reeling from 9/11—finds some old smallpox scabs while researching smallpox for a school assignment, and unwittingly unleashes a bio-terrorism threat on his city. It had a little bit of medical stuff, a lot of suspense, and I loved it.
About a year ago, I stumbled upon a copy at a used-book store, and I bought it. I was in the middle of reading something else, though, and so it sat almost forgotten on my shelf.
Then, I finally got around to reading The Face on the Milk Carton, which was by the same author (and which was always checked out in the school library when I wanted to read it). It was an enjoyable read, but I clearly wasn’t the target age for it, and it didn’t really live up to how much I’d wanted to read it all those years. Which just made me even more nervous to read Code Orange.
Flash forward to last week. I had just read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, followed by Asleep—a nonfiction book about the encephalitis lethargica epidemic, followed by a re-reading of The Book Thief. I was in the mood for something light. I turned to my bookshelf, and saw Code Orange. It was time.
I was disheartened as I began reading. It was very middle-grade. I enjoyed marvelling at the fact that something from 2005 could feel so dated (such as references to checking out movies from Blockbuster—those were the days!), but other than that, I wasn’t enjoying it much. The ship was annoying, there was little suspense for me, as I was pretty sure that there was little to no chance of infectivity where hundred year old scabs were concerned, and while I found Mitty a pretty likeable character, he seemed to lack depth.
Once Mitty begins to worry that he has contracted smallpox as a result of inhaling the old scabs he found, and that he will become contagious in a short period of time, he starts to raise some intriguing dilemmas.
Alert the CDC or check himself into a hospital, and he ceases to become his own person, instead becoming a medical curiosity. And he doesn’t want doctors and the government making decisions on what to do with him in the interests of public health (as they did with Mary Malon, whom you may know as “Typhoid Mary,” and who is brought up in this novel). Furthermore, he doesn’t want to endanger doctors and ambulance drivers and others by seeking help. Especially since there is no cure for smallpox, and if he did contract it, there would be little they could do for him anyway.
But if he really does have smallpox, he can’t just pretend nothing’s wrong and go about his life in a crowded city, spreading smallpox wherever he goes. He realises that would make him a murderer.
Smallpox has been completely wiped out of human society, but if Mitty has it, that’s no longer true. And in a city like New York where people are always moving, it would quickly spread. And so he comes to a horrifying conclusion, especially for a highschooler who previously only cared about listening to music:
There is only one way to be sure that no ambulance driver, no doctor, no mother, no father, no classmate, no kid in a stroller, no guy on a bike, no waiter in a diner, not one person in New York gets sick from me.
That way is to die before I get sick.
That way the virus dies with me. (pg. 118)
That was some surprisingly deep stuff that I had not expected at all. The next chapter goes even deeper:
But could he do that to his parents?
Mitty believed suicide to be the most vicious thing a child could do to his mother and father. It was saying “You don’t matter enough to me to stay alive.” It was saying “I hate you so much I’m going to make you think about my dead body every day of my life.”
But Mitty would be doing this for the opposite reason. He’d be saying “You and the world matter so much I can’t let you be exposed to this disease.”
But did that justify it? (pg. 120)
Some might think that’s harsh, but as someone who has suffered from severe depression, I can tell you that it needs to be said and is exactly what anyone who is contemplating suicide needs to hear and think about. I love that this book doesn’t glorify taking one’s own life, even if for a selfless reason.
I’m going to stop there just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t want spoilers (everything I just now talked about isn’t really a spoiler), but the rest of the book goes on to have some pretty deep and thought-provoking things to say about courage and sacrifice and what those things mean.
So, in an unexpected turn of events, I love this book even more than I did the first time I read it. I didn’t pick up on those themes at all the first time. It went surprisingly deep for having started off a little shallow. Yeah, it’s middle grade and a very simple read, but I still recommend it. I’d give it a 3/5 on the whole, but a 4.5/5 for theme. I’m so glad that I re-read it. If you’re in the mood for a thriller that will be a very easy and short read, give this one a go!
Next time, I’ll talk about the second book that I re-read recently. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on re-reading, or Code Orange, or anything else, really.
Have a lovely day!