John Reed's novella is no longer new and neither is it old. Published originally in 2002 by Roof Books, Snowball's Chance begins "The old pigs were dying" (3)--Napoleon included. The death of the old totalitarian regime creates a porous opportunity for Snowball's return. And he does, with a goat at his side.
I first encountered George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) in Ms. Brewer's 5th grade class at Gaines Elementary School. She had us read the text and watch the animated film that was created in 1954. After that, I read Animal Farm once on my own in middle school and again when it was assigned in high school. When I student taught at Harrisonburg High School, I read the book again. In all these encounters, either as a student or as a teacher, I found myself crushed by Napoleon's assassination plot, subsequent exiling, and defamation of Snowball. I was young. I was naive. I wanted to believe in good and evil. John Reed's rendering of Snowball dismantles such innocent readings and exposes the crude simplicity of Orwell's original satire.
Without spoiling too much of Reed's incredible efforts to haul Animal Farm into the 21st Century, his success founds itself on his ability to defamiliarize the mantras of Western power and economy. Snowball's mantras and principles ring as falsely as Napoleon's, except that we as Western readers have been trained to believe Snowball's creed, which was not the case with Napoleon's commandments. This difference means that Reed's objective is a tougher task to pull off than Orwell's.
But Reed is successful in his objectives, managing to modernize the original aesthetic in the same manner that those James Bond films starring Daniel Craig ushered 007 into a new century. After reading Snowball's Chance, I cannot imagine Orwell's Animal Farm without it.
More importantly, Snowball's Chance of the two texts is the one capable of truly challenging elementary through high school students to reflect on not only their places within the United States but their nation's place within the world. In light of Reed's accomplishment, Animal Farm appears to jab a thick finger at archaic archetypes of the Soviet block as if to say, "Aren't you glad that's not us?" And therefore by default anything that is not Napoleon's regime has appeared virtuous through the lens of Orwell's initial efforts.
However, when Reed's narrator states, "And thus--so too did Minimus finally understand. There was no stopping this Snowball. This avalanche" (86), he manages to capture both the awe and the horror at the forces to have shaped the world today. And these forces are multi-faceted and full of nuance. For example, Reed's Woodland creatures both desire and despise the Twin Mills of Animal Fair, and in this way they (and their ideologies) are both victim and villain, just as the creatures of Animal Fair too,, become both victim and villain. The menace that binds the world in conflict is far more subtle--comfortable and reassuring even--than Napoleon's bullish propaganda, but even the lesser of evils can do great harm. In fact, the willingness to believe that one's own leisure bears no consequence may very well be the true inciting incident.
Without Reed's text, Orwell's work would teeter on the brink of being an obsolete history lesson. Then again, without Orwell's text, Reed's work might never have been. A strange and common occasion that is--the critique that owes a tremendous debt to the past.
Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.