Well, I shouldn’t say “bleak,” because ultimately, the book does have a relatively uplifting ending, and I tend to associate bleakness with a lack of hope or optimism, which isn’t this series at all, no matter how dark it goes. But I think this book and what it’s willing to do with Tobias’s character is an example of one of the many reasons I loved this series so much when I was growing up. Kids don’t live happy-go-lucky lives where darkness or confusion never touches them, and even if they don’t have personal trauma, kids see a lot more of what’s going on in the world around them than adults like to believe. It would be unhelpful for children’s literature of any kind to portray a world where kids don’t have to occasionally deal with some pretty terrible stuff, not least because reading a book about a character like Tobias would be helpful for a kid going through similar emotional confusion. This series is not afraid to Go There.
For much of The Encounter, Tobias (our third POV narrator, after Jake in book one, and Rachel in book two) is caught in the middle of a rather unique identity crisis. Back at the end of book one, Tobias passed the two hour limit in his red-tailed hawk morph, and is now stuck as a bird of prey, permanently. His presence in the first two books was mostly used as a way for Applegate to show that her world was one that had consequences, but here she takes the time to flesh him out, and to explore just exactly how something as far-fetched as suddenly finding yourself transformed from a thirteen year old boy to living full time as a hawk would affect Tobias psychologically, and how it would change his character.
While out coasting on the thermals one afternoon, Tobias notices a large absence in the sky heading towards the mountains. And it happens again the next day. The Animorphs soon learn it’s a cloaked Yeerk ship on a supply run. Turns out the Yeerks don’t have Star Trek level technology. The ability to create breathable air and clean water from nothing eludes them, and so they must rely on Earth’s resources. The Animorphs hatch a plan to infiltrate the ship and bring its cloak down, exposing the enormous ship for all to see. They hope that in doing so, humans will be able to resist the Yeerks and stop the Yeerks before they get a real toehold on Earth. They believe this will work because the Yeerks are still taking great pains not to make their presence known, and conclude this is because they don’t have the numbers to do more than a secret invasion of the planet.
Of course things go wrong. Don’t they always.
But the real story here is Tobias, who is beginning to feel more and more isolated from the other Animorphs; he feels he is forgetting how to be human. He’s drawn more and more to live life as a hawk, to leave his old life behind. As the line between Human Tobias and Hawk Tobias is smudged more and more, he doesn’t know who “Tobias” is anymore. Near the climax of the book, SPOILERS he forgets himself and makes his first fresh kill: a rat. Up until now, he’s been crashing in a toweled drawer in Jake’s attic at night, and living off of food that Jake brings him (that is most certainly not a nutritional hawk diet). The rat incident panics him so badly that he basically commits a panicked suicide run into a mall, where only a baseball and Marco’s quick thinking save him from smashing himself through a thick-paned skylight. END SPOILERS
By the end, though, there’s as much to be thankful for as to regret. Even though SPOILERS the mission with the Yeerk supply ship doesn’t turn out as they planned, they do manage to accidentally destroy it, an action that doesn’t expose or stop the Yeerk invasion, but which at the very least provides a hindrance to the Yeerks, and possibly a painful blow. END SPOILERS And even though Tobias still feels alone in his teenage hawk life, he is able to find the indispensable kernel of his selfhood that still exists as Tobias, separate from the hawk, and renews his commitment to fighting the Yeerks until the Andalites can arrive, hopefully bringing with them a way for Tobias to be human once again.
Up next: dolphins!