Lori Ann Stephens
Moonflower Publishing Ltd., London,
Paperback, 978-1-9196187-4-6, 352 pages
November 1, 2022
It’s hard to escape when you’re walled in.
When Blue Running was published late last year in London, North Texas writer Lori Ann Stephens’s futuristic coming-of-age novel scored glowing reviews in the British press. Now the book’s paperback edition has been released, and its dystopian setting may rattle some Lone Star readers: a 21st-century Republic of Texas.
Fourteen-year-old Bluebonnet “Blue” Andrews is on the run from Blessing, her hometown in East Texas. She is wanted for a murder she did not commit and is trying desperately to escape the Republic of Texas to reunite with her estranged mother. But Blue must first avoid capture, get past the Republic’s deadly border security, and then somehow climb over the vast border wall that now separates Texas from the rest of America.
In Ms. Stephens’s tale, the Republic seceded from the United States a decade earlier and purposely walled itself in. Since then, it has become a place where even school children and the homeless are required to carry guns and help provide for their own safety and security.
The Texas Rangers and others pursuing Blue are convinced she shot and killed a high school classmate, Maggie Wisdom, who was part of a wealthy, privileged, politically connected family. Blue, the daughter of an alcoholic deputy sheriff, did not kill Maggie but cannot prove it and faces the death penalty if caught. The fatal bullet came from her gun. Even her father believes she is guilty.
Character-on-the-run novels often start with the main character already fleeing or hiding, with flashbacks used to bring the reader up to date. Ms. Stephens, however, effectively sets the stage and the stakes first. Blue’s social isolation, her longing for friends, and the realities of living as a young teen are all brought into sharp focus before Maggie’s death occurs.
For example, the author has Blue describe how her friendship with Maggie began soon after Maggie’s family moved to Blessing and “built the mansion at the top of the hill” and how their friendship had already faded by the time of Maggie’s death:
“I had her for the whole summer. For three months, people stopped talking about Blue’s drunk daddy and Blue’s ugly clothes because they were talking [now] about Maggie, who’d somehow charmed the whole of Blessing with her camera-flash teeth and her talent for singing like an angel and skeet shooting like the devil. For the first time, I was almost normal.
“Then high school started, and the Pretty Ones patted a stool at lunch and Maggie sat down at the far end of the cafeteria. She fit right in with them. Maggie stopped sitting with me and things went back to the way they used to be.”
Soon after Blue goes on the run, she manages to team up with another fugitive, a pregnant illegal immigrant named Jet, who likewise wants to get out of the Republic alive. Unfortunately, the high-walled border is guarded not only by troops and police but by a volunteer border militia. Any wall-climbers (“Scalers”) can be shot down for sport, and the media keeps weekly and long-term tallies of how many Scalers have died. Meanwhile, Blue’s mother can only help them if they can cross the Republic all the way to El Paso before attempting to scale the wall.
Dystopian tales have gained enormous following in recent decades. During times marked by real-life wars, environmental disasters, pandemics, and growing political and cultural animosities, novels such as The Hunger Games trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale series, and the Divergent series, and even Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic, Brave New World, have been snapped up by young-adult and adult readers. Some observers of this phenomenon have stated that it is driven by real-life concerns for the near future as well as by desires for escapism and entertainment.
Blue Running is well-written, fast-paced, and rich with topics worthy of debate and book club discussion. The author has carefully avoided creating any larger-than-life, cliché characters occasionally found in Texas fiction. And there is no reliance on high-tech wizardry or futuristic gadgets with superpowers, just devices currently commonplace in America, including cell phones, bicycles, motorcycles, pickup trucks, and guns.
Ultimately, Lori Ann Stephens’s tense, engrossing novel offers warnings that, even in a democracy, deadly barriers can easily be erected that create areas ruled by political and social tyranny. And many who are within those walls will risk everything, even their lives, to reach the greater freedoms, safety, and opportunities available on the other side, for themselves, their beliefs, and their families.
Lori Ann Stephens grew up in North Texas, where she developed an addiction to the arts. Her award-winning work has been noted by Glimmer Train Stories, The Chicago Tribune, and the English National Opera. She teaches Writing and Critical Reasoning undergraduate courses, as well as creative writing graduate courses at Southern Methodist University. She lives in Texas and is a bit mad about her cat.