In Sandra Newman’s novel The Country of Ice Cream Star, we open with a clan of 38 people, likely the descents of Senegalese refugees, in what used to be Lowell, Massachusetts, eighty years after the collapse of civilization. What we do know is that currently, everyone dies of a disease they refer to as “posies” around ages 18-20. Since no one lives terribly long, society changes quickly and has a short memory. For instance, there are “children’s tales” that all the white people in the U.S. fled to Europe when they started getting eviction notices to contain some outbreak. No one has living parents. Until one day they are burning old evacuation houses from “before times” because they contain skeletons of the dead (a bad omen, the believe), and out runs a white man, something they’ve never seen. Clearly older than eighteen, the man represents hope for a cure, and he eventually tells them where they can find it. But should they believe him?
The Country of Ice Cream Star is a wildly imaginative novel coming in at 580 pages. The society we are introduced to is small, collective, the nomadic “Sengels.” Through context and a bit of Googling, we (for this was another Biscuit book club pick) learned that Senegalese refugees live near Lowell, Massachusetts, today. Newman’s characters are likely based on these people from this French-speaking (among other languages) nation. The book is immersive in big part due to the language, which has evolved in the eighty years since the collapse. Verb tenses are invented, words have some French(ish) spelling or add something “Frenchy” to them, like “prettieuse” to mean “pretty useful.” Some words are mashed together to mimic how they sound instead of what is correct grammar. You may read “armen arm” instead of “arm in arm.” The way we fail to pronounce the end of words correctly today shows up in the novel. Instead of “concrete,” you’ll get “concree.”
But it’s not just the way people say words, it’s also playing with the root of words. Instead of being “thankful,” characters are “grateful,” but they don’t say grateful, they say “gratty.” And beyond that, the sentences are concepts that make sense but are not standard English:
Then she look back and say, “Ain’t guest you to a cigarette. Was ugly courtesy.”
“Be no fault. Yo, I take one gratty.”
I love books that play with language in a way that makes me struggle to some degree, but never push me into frustration. One challenge was figuring out who this new white man is. He speaks a language the Sengels call “rooish,” but he quickly picks up English when a small girl claims he belongs to her, like a pet. The Sengels refer to him as a “roo,” and again, through context, we realized he is Russian, and “roo” is likely “Russki” (though I thought at first “roo” might be derived from the French for “rough” to refer to the man’s pinkish skin compared to the dark complexions of the Sengels). While this discovery and teaching the new guy is happening, the leader of the Sengels is hiding that he has taken ill with posies. So, his sister, Ice Cream, investigates the Russian — Pasha is his name — and his claims of a cure that could save her brother.
Though only fifteen, Ice Cream is one of the most vivid protagonists I’ve ever read. I could take the easy route and say she’s “a bad ass,” but that wouldn’t suffice. These days we use that term to mean a teen girl or woman who beats people up like a man — and I hate that. Ice Cream is quick to wrestle and play-fight violently, but she is anti-death in regards to all humans, even enemies. She’s the most hardened softy ever; when she asks a war prisoner what his crimes were, he claims he will not tell her because he wants her to cry for him at his funeral. She replies, “Foo, ain’t worry that. I cry for any moron thing. It be no flatteries, but I going to cry.”
Part of Ice Cream’s boldness derives from her age, those years when we all think we’re invincible. As Pasha and Ice Cream become loving friends, he makes every effort to save her life in dangerous situations. At one point, she’s hiding under tree roots by a river for a few minutes only to yell up at Pasha that she’s bored, and if he doesn’t come down and entertain her, she’s coming back up. If Ice Cream gives an order, she reminds people, “Ain’t be asking, you will do this thing.” While she isn’t petulant or rude, Ice Cream has no concept of niceties, and there is something brave about that that struck a chord with me. Although she finds “heely shoes” insufferable, she’ll wear a long white dress as a symbol to her people when they go to war for the cure. Until we meet more Russians, Newman reminds us that every characters is under twenty, though the only way they are shaped by today’s fripperies resides in their names — Redbook, for example.
Sandra Newman takes us from East coast woods to New York City to Washington, D.C., all locations in new iterations and under surprising leadership. Even though it is a slower read because the language ins’t something you can speed your eyes over, The Country of Ice Cream Star is an adventurous quest with a unique protagonist and a deep, deep heart.