You might as well subtitle this book Cassie Has the Worst Day Ever. Literally. Take a look at these totally not-at-all-made-up chapter titles to get an idea of how terrible Cassie’s day was:
Chapter 1: Cassie Quits the Animorphs Chapter 2: Cassie Has the Most Awkward Exit Interview Ever Chapter 3: Cassie Makes a Friend! Chapter 4: Cassie’s Friend is Evil! Chapter 5: Cassie and Friend Nearly Get Eaten by the Leopard Chapter 6: Cassie and Friend Debate Moral Philosophies While Starving to Death in the Forest Chapter 7: Cassie Allows Herself to be Infested by a Yeerk Chapter 8: Cassie Agrees to be Trapped in Caterpillar Morph Forever Chapter 9: Cassie Has to Explain Everything to Her Parents by Pretending to be a Minor Celebrity Chapter 10: Cassie Goes Shopping!
(If you know Cassie, you know how terrible that last chapter must have been. She puts on a brave face, but I know that secretly, deep down inside, she was quaking.)
As before, I have to give Applegate credit for the intense philosophical discussions she puts into kids’ literature. Cassie and Controller!Karen basically stake out the human verus Yeerk sides of the debate. The whole character of Karen adds a huge dimension to the series. Until now, we’ve basically received a one-sided view of this story. Aside from the brief time that Jake played host to a Yeerk, we’ve had no exposure to the Yeerk mentality. Karen’s apology for Yeerk parasitism, and the way she talks about how Andalites meddle and make war, is a healthy criticism of the “good guys” in this series.
In this way, Applegate creates a narrative far more nuanced than you might see in some adult literature about war. She makes the Yeerk perspective sympathetic even though she doesn’t excuse their behaviour. The whole idea here is that in war it’s so easy to see the other side as evil and monstruous. And while I’d argue that what the Yeerks do is evil, Controller!Karen basically shows us that a Yeerk can acknowledge the harm it does.
But you can just imagine that if some poor Andalite scientist had a brain wave and invented a way for Yeerks to inhabit clone bodies or robot bodies or something, then Andalite high command would shut that down immediately. The Andalties are not about co-existing with the Yeerks, and a lot of what Karen says about them is spot on.
Oh, and Applegate just casually drops in a crash course on Yeerk reproduction in the middle of this conversation. So parents, make sure you talk to your kids about Yeerk sex before they read about it in books, OK?
Cassie has had crises of conscience before. The Departure is her big crisis, her supposed breaking point. I know it’s easy to minimize Cassie; her compassion and conscience always seem like downers when all you want to do is SMASH STUFF with your elephant/gorilla morph. I kind of feel like this book is in part Applegate’s attempt to blow that dynamic wide open, to explicitly acknowledge and deal with it and say, “Look guys, I know that it sucks that Cassie keeps raising valid points of order when all you want to read about is how the Animorphs are fighting baddies with their animal powers. But shut up and listen to another point of view.” It’s like she wants to build empathy or something. I know that’s not popular in the States these days; I guess that’s one reason the Animorphs relaunch didn’t do so well….
I also want to point out that this is the first time a regular book features multiple narrators, which should give you an idea of how special Applegate considers it.
The ending might seem like a huge cheat, but stop and think for a moment.
In addition to its commentary on war and growing up, Animorphs has always celebrated biodiversity. Applegate is at her best as a writer when describing the transformations in morphing and the sensations of being in a new morph. She understands and conveys this idea that being an animal is not just about being a different shape or being able to fly: animals see things in a different spectrum; they smell and hear things we aren’t aware of; they have alien ways of thinking.
Applegate reminds us how spectacular and wondrous it is that a creature like a caterpillar can, through natural means rather than a technology, transform into something as different from it as a butterfly. When we’re wrapped up with our ebooks and heated blankets and all that pumpkin spice stuff (hello, October) it’s easy to forget that there is wonder all around us.
The Departure also marks the end of the Second Age of Animorphs, which began in #9: The Secret. Next time, the Animorphs gain a new member … and it all goes horribly wrong.