Mindy McGinnis’s Not a Drop to Drink has been at the top of YA Guy’s to-read list ever since I heard about it a year ago.
I’m not sure why. Maybe because I like the title’s Coleridgean nod. Or because the premise--a world with scant fresh water--is so intriguing (and prophetic). Or because McGinnis is a librarian (my favorite kind of people) whose blog is hilarious. Whatever, I was really looking forward to her debut.
And now that I’ve read it, I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.
The story is straightforward and stark (as is the prose): with drinking water running perilously low, teenage Lynn and her mother defend their rural home and its tiny pond, gunning down anyone who ventures too close to the water. Under her mother’s tutelage, Lynn’s experience of life has been whittled down to bare-bones, kill-or-be-killed survival. But the arrival of newcomers in the area, including a young girl and a teenage boy, starts to open Lynn’s heart to feelings she’s never known: compassion, guilt, hope. Soon, she’ll be forced to decide whether to heed her mother’s lessons or to risk her life for those she loves.
One of the best things about Not a Drop to Drink is its portrait of Lynn, a thoroughly believable character whom McGinnis denies the tinge of vulnerability we seem to demand of YA heroines. Some readers might be put off by Lynn; others might admire her strength. I found her simply true to life.
Ditto for the book’s plot and world-building. Unlike most YA dystopias, Not a Drop to Drink does without totalitarian regimes, futuristic technology, or bizarre reconfigurations of the social order: it starts from the premise of a nearly waterless world and builds a convincing portrait of life under those conditions. Its realism is helped by the wise choice to tell Lynn’s story in the third person, past tense (a rarity in today’s first-person-present-tense-ruled YA dystopias): there’s a journalistic quality to the narration that complements the sense that we’re simply seeing life as it is. The only missteps in the book’s realism are a (to me) unconvincing romantic subplot and a static, talky chapter late in the book that fills in the backstory. Aside from those awkward moments--forgivable in a debut--the book rings true.
And its truths, I have to caution, are not for the faint of heart. The world McGinnis portrays is an ugly one, bleak and, at times, seemingly hopeless. If Lynn learns to find moments of grace and beauty in this world, those moments are hard-earned, and they don’t come without devastating sacrifice. The raw beauty of McGinnis’s prose perfectly captures this struggle, as in the following passage:
Her lost bucket rested on the bottom now, not far from the edge. Lynn used it as a marker, a sign that they hadn’t had enough rain in the dry summers. The year before she’d been able to see the white plastic grip on the top of the handle, floating only a foot below the surface as the level dropped. Each day brought it into clearer focus, driving a spike of fear into her heart and inviting the flood of certainty that this would be the year they didn’t make it. This would be the year they died.
The bucket, it may be needless to say, is an apt symbol for Lynn’s world, where promises are seldom kept and even the implements of life can become harbingers of death. (It’s also a great allusion to the Greek myth of Tantalus.) Such an unsparing vision of the future makes Not a Drop to Drink a tough read.
But at the same time, a breathtaking one.