All-in-all Under the Dome exceeded my expectations. Stephen King’s usual techniques that often draw affectionate eye rolls from fans were kept to a minimum in this book. All though there is a definite good vs. evil theme and characters for the most part fall clearly on one side or the other, it seems less like lazy story telling and more like a subtle disconcerting suggestion that when the safe structures of law and societal organization are removed, there’s no telling what we’re capable of.
Warning, a few spoilers ahead!
When a clear dome made of an unidentified, indestructible substance descends over the small town of Castle Rock Chester Mills it doesn’t take long for the more unstable town members to go all Lord of the Flies. Big Jim, the town selectman who acts like a terrifying combination of everyone you associate with the Bush administration, makes a well-measured but violent grab at power. He collects followers who too want power but lack the brains to coerce citizens into giving up their rights in the name of safety. Set loose with guns and makeshift police badges, these men act out their privilege in ways previously only loosely held in check by law, including graphic acts of rape and sexual assault. Women in particular are the most at risk when privilege is set loose in this macrocosm, but as the book develops it becomes clear that women are the ones who have experience with being victims and they know how to fight it.
While the main character is a likeable war-hero turned fry cook (who admittedly is not a reproduction of Stephen King himself, he didn’t even have glasses, I take it back) it’s the female characters that drive the story. Julia, a reporter and head of the town newspaper, fights for freedom of press and expression when everyone else has given up and is ready to let Big Jim lead them. The struggle for power under the dome is just as much about the control of information as it is about violence. Records are kept, DIY printing presses are run, and I dusted off my CP Style Guide with a proud tear in my eye. As a side note, after finishing the book I realized we were never subjected to lengthy discussions of Julia’s long-flowing hair, swelling breasts, or tiny waist. Like many other of King’s female characters, Julia is a compelling and flawed character not a prop. Can I get an AMEN?
*Ahem* Anyway, we do get a fair selection of women-as-mothers, an archetype King always loves and sometimes crosses the line into sentimentally when writing about. We need only think of Wendy in The Shining or Elizabeth in The Dark Half wringing their hands over the psychotic men attacking them and their children. But King gives mothers a bit more flexibility in this book. The tragic story of a poor, drug addicted mother and her baby remind us that motherhood is not easy and doesn’t come with the veneer of a suburban home and white picket fence. The mothers in this story will protect their children at all costs, and by using this fierce instinct unlikely women (and some men) become heroes.
Finishing this book left me with the desire for more big, brave political novels that make me question where I’ll stand if a dome falls over my town.