Sandra Newman’s ‘The Country of Ice Cream Star’ Is a Heavy Read

There’s talk of war, rape, disease -- all things we associate with the worst of adulthood. But Newman never lets us forget that these are children.

When I was young my uncle gave me a mass-market paperback copy of A Clockwork Orange. As a school boy I was used to seeing glossaries in most of my text books, but the appearance of one between the neon orange covers of Anthony Burgess’ novel was a surprise. As I read it, it felt like every other word was replaced by an alien word, and every word after that was replaced with one that was only vaguely familiar. I finally succumbed to the pleasure of getting lost in the tangles of the language.

There’s no such glossary in Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, nor should there be. The glossary in A Clockwork Orange not only slowed my reading, it became a crutch, a way for me to avoid the challenge the author presented to the reader. Newman’s book is written in a dialect forged from African American slang and evolved, in the story, over a period of 80 years, so one must succumb to the pleasure of getting lost in this language, as well. This “new” language developed after a plague called posies wiped out all the adults, and all the white people, in the United States.

From a plot standpoint, this is a pretty straightforward story. A quick description places it perfectly alongside the current crop of dystopian fiction like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or even young adult books like The Hunger Games. After the plague, all people die by the age of 20.

We meet 15-year-old Ice Cream Star and her 19-year-old brother, Driver, who is stricken with posies. Ice Cream and her people, the Sengles, live in the Massa woods, near another tribe called the Lowells. From this the reader can place the action in Massachusetts. Hope for a cure arrives in Pasha, a “roo” who speaks a different language, claims to be 30-years-old, and, most surprisingly, is white. Roos are known to Ice Cream, but she believed them to be a myth.

Pasha relishes telling lies, and his knowledge of a cure for posies may or may not be true. Ice Cream and the tribe of Sengles head south to a city called Quantico (present day Washington, D.C.), where Pasha says the cure can be found. On her journey she becomes worshipped as a god and leads her people into battle against a powerful army.

With a few tweaks here and there, this could just as easily describe The Hunger Games or any other dystopian thriller with a young female protagonist, but this is a decidedly adult novel. Indeed, the plot might draw some readers to this book, but what keeps them is the language.

That the book is well-written is hardly an impressive feat. Lyrical passages and clever turns of phrase seem pedestrian in the face of Newman’s prose. She writes in first person, and Ice Cream’s voice has completely different points of reference from her audience. She doesn’t share the same idioms, cultural markers, history, religion, or even racial perspectives as a contemporary reader. This new language features convenient abbreviations, too, as when “October” becomes “Tober”, and words are formed from the way children mishear words they don’t understand, as when “notebook” becomes “no-book”.

Ice Cream calls her nation “the Nighted States” and this is as fitting a description of a devastated nation as any, but here the name morphs into both pun and metaphor. This is the beauty of poetry and speculative fiction merging together, the kind of coincidence which gives weight to the idea by making it seem plausible, even inevitable, like it was there all along.

Other vestigaes of the old world remain, such asvarious religious sects. The Christings live near the Sengles, and they teach that being gay “is forbid. No enfants bred from it, it get be death. Is selfish loves. Their hearts be envy and their bodies be pain…” Sadly, even bigotry survives plagues.

It’s easy to dwell on the dialect as merely cosmetic, and it is at times distracting, puzzling over a word. However, this method isn’t a mask to hide a lackluster story, it’s worldbuilding. It tells us the hows and whys and whats without specifics. Reading The Country of Ice Cream Star works best in long sittings with limited or no interruptions. Even when Ice Cream’s meaning is obscured, Newman’s vision remains clear. That gives you time to settle into the meanings of what you’re reading without having to constantly stop and translate, and it also gives you time to settle into the rhythm of Ice Cream’s voice.

The Country of Ice Cream Star. There’s talk of war, rape, disease — all things we associate with the worst of adulthood, but Newman never lets us forget that these are children, teenagers, even “littles” doing all these awful things. There’s a bleakness to the story, a feeling similar to what the characters must experience, knowing when they’re going to die. That’s a burden for anyone, but experiencing it through the eyes of children is devastating. Yet maybe it’s because the story focuses on children that it never becomes hopeless.

RATING 8 / 10