It’s his magnum opus. It’s a coming-of-age tale, a love story, an adventure, a philosophical quest, and a message in a bottle.
If C.S. Lewis distilled the essence of Christianity as wonder, forgiveness, love, and awe, Pratchett is distilling secular humanism as love, resourcefulness, inquiry, and sacrifice. Without god, what we have is each other. Nation is a story of courage and adventure and unswerving loyalty. Without god, there is still magic.
It’s set in our world (sort of) in the South Pacific islands (sort of). There’s a deadly tsunami, and in its wake we meet two children on the cusp of adulthood: Mau, an island boy who must bury everyone he knows, and Daphne, an English girl who is the sole survivor of her shipwreck. This isn’t an Adam and Eve story. Day by day, more refugees are drawn to the island by the smoke of their fire, and Mau and Daphne quickly learn to shift for themselves as well as take care of dozens of others.
Daphne has me from the moment she leaves a mango on a plate for Mau. Later, she gets this unsettling compliment from a cannibal priest: “You are very clever,” said the old man shyly. “I would like to eat your brains, one day.” Between Daphne and Tiffany Aching, Pratchett is now the king of plucky girl heroines.
Mau is the heart of raw pain. His island simply calls itself the Nation, and one day the Nation is gone. Mau says he is without a soul: he left his boy soul behind after his rite of passage, and now there is no Nation to give him his man soul. When the first boatload of refugees arrives with a baby that will die without milk, Mau does the impossible and milks a wild pig.
The milking of the pig is the key: Nation is the exact inverse of Lord of the Flies. In Lord of the Flies, shipwrecked boys descend into savagery, banding together only to kill pigs. They become animals. In Nation, Mau secretly goes off by himself with a daring plan to save the baby. Using his wits and sacrificing his dignity, he gets a wild sow drunk, rolls himself in pigshit, and sneaks in with the piglets. Afterward, reeking of pigshit, Mau hides from the others.
It’s not about glory or adventure — it’s about saving the smallest member of Mau’s new Nation. Mau has lost everything, including his faith in the gods, yet nothing could be further from Lord of the Flies than milking a pig to save an infant. You can lose your gods and keep your heart, the story says, because life is not Lord of the Flies. The title doesn’t refer to the Nation, but rather to the undefinable meaning of “nation” as “the people who care about me” or “the people I have a duty toward” or “the people who make me the person I am.”
In the Nation, boys were dropped off at Boy Island with only a knife, and they needed to make their way back to the Nation within one month in order to become a man. Mau was scared out of his wits because he couldn’t see how anyone could make a seaworthy canoe with no tools. On his second day on Boy Island, he found an ax in a tree and a sign that said “Men help other men.” Looking up, he saw hundreds of notches on the tree trunk where the ax had been returned. Soon, he found a well seasoned log that his father and uncles must have left for him. All around him was a conspiracy of love. The tsunami hits as Mau is making his triumphant return, so this is the last message that Mau ever receives from his family. When his island gods are proven false, this message of love remains.