Colorado Novelist, Aaron Michael Ritchey, breaks the mold with his new novel Dandelion Iron. This clever, well-thought and startling story defies standard characterization. It’s an epic journey with an impossible task, Lord of the Rings; a rural western family drama, Little House on the Prairie, it’s post Sino-American War, Firefly; with a post-apocalyptic sans electricity section of the United States, Revolution; abandoned by the wealthy, technologically advanced sections of the U.S.; Hunger Games; populated with few men and a fighting female remnant, Y: The Last Man; dealing with fertility issues, The Handmaid’s Tale; which furthers questionable genetic research, Dark Angel. Plus there are serious Steampunk elements, young love “romance”, coming of age issues amidst strict moral guidelines, and action scenes that read like Braveheart meets Die Hard. It’s not a mash-up, nor a witches’ brew of trending topics, instead this crafted world where the evolved science and changing political structures provides a plausible possible future and a remarkable background for sincere character growth in the midst of chaos.
In 2029, the second year of the seventeen year Sino-American war, the Chinese nuked Yellowstone which resulted in a massive electromagnetic field covering five states: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Montana. This new area, later forced by the United States to revert back to territories, became known as the Juniper, and it’s the most dangerous place on Earth. The war cut the U.S. population in half and decimated several generations of men. In tandem a Sterility Epidemic made ninety percent of the surviving males sterile.
The novel starts in the year 2058, just three years after the remaining final combatants return home and thirteen years since the war concluded, Cavatica Weller retrieved from her boarding school in the United States returns to her home in Juniper for her mother’s funeral. Upon arrival she’s informed of her family’s debt and her mother’s plan to save the ranch: a cattle drive though the most dangerous parts of Juniper. With no other option, she, her sisters, farmhands and three thousand headcount start a thirteen hundred kilometer journey west. Twelve days into their journey, they witness an attack, which thrusts them into a fight against Juniper’s notorious outlaws. They save the attacked boy, whom the outlaws attempted to apprehend and sell to the highest bidder. The three sisters are torn. They know he’ll be hunted: one wants to send him away, another wants to sell him and Cavatica falls in love.
This rich story narrated in the first person by Cavatica benefits from the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. They provide back-stories on the war, ideological beliefs, various views of Juniper, and the United States, which continues to advance technologically throughout Juniper’s devolution. The tension between each sister, Cavatica age sixteen, Wren age twenty and Sharlotte age twenty-four, deftly portrays family hate, love and female strength. Father Pilate’s actions and decisions over the past thirty years add an honest, adult vantage point for he’s not a product of this time like the sisters. The updated, anachronistic Zeppelins add needed transportation in Juniper and are a source of delightful steampunk fantasy. The post-war East Indian immigration and ensuing Hindu flavorings of language, food and people throughout the novel add a true-to-life layer of rebuilding and moving past war. The television show dramatizing the real Juniper life is brilliant. Lastly, the literary references throughout the story ground this apocalypse back to our time, furthering the “believability” of it all.
There are some challenges. The language is jarring and, at times, unapproachable. It’s red-neck-ish, country-ish, new world techy-ish, Hindu slang-ish, Chinese slang-ish, but Mr. Ritchey anticipated a baffled reader. A helpful 3-page “Glossary of Historical Figures, Slang and Technology” reference list follows the last chapter. The language does grow on you and with his glossary you’re reading and comprehending at full speed in no time. Also, without revealing key scenes, many of them are a serious adrenaline rush. It’s always life or death and conflict can’t be avoided. To the reader it’s somewhat difficult to understand why people would choose to move to Juniper or remain there when the former states lost electricity. Overall, my biggest objection is the cliffhanger ending. Ugh!
Beyond these few quibbles, the larger story is that Juniper girls, like dandelions, can grow (and perhaps even thrive) anywhere, are tough, and pretty in their own unique way. It’s a charming and empowering young adult testament to true strength in the midst of difficulty. Dandelion Iron creates an intriguing world well worth the read.