Animorphs #19: “The Departure” by K.A. Applegate
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, July 1998
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: Cassie’s had it. After the last mission, she realizes she’s getting tired of missions. Tired of battles. Tired of being an Animorph. She decides that she just can’t do it anymore. So she quits.
Plot: Oh man, the book I’ve been dreading: the one where Cassie quits the Animorphs. But, I will say, there were aspects of this story that I didn’t appreciate as a kid, especially the very in-depth conversations about war and morality, that I was much more on board for during this read. So, while Cassie was still infuriating, I did end up not hating it as much as I remember hating it. With that blazing intro, let’s dive in!
During a “spy on The Sharing” mission that goes bad and results in a battle with Hork Bajir, Cassie finds herself hitting the metaphorical wall of “had it” with the violence that is life as an Animorphs. It all comes to a head when she goes in for the kill on a Hork Bajir she was fighting, even after Jake calls for a retreat. To Cassie, this is evidence that she is losing her ability to care, becoming deadened to the fight, and that’s something she can’t stand. And she quits. Walks away.
That night Cassie learns from her parents that the wildlife rehab center they run in their barn has lost funding and will likely have to close. Plus, there’s a leopard loose in the woods, escaped from a local exotic collector. With all of these happy thoughts, Cassie goes to bed, only to be plagued by nightmares. She wakes up and wanders to her window where she thinks she glimpses a pair of eyes looking back up at her.
The next day, the group confronts her in the barn about her decision, mostly refusing to believe she was serious. As it becomes clear that, yes, yes she is serious, the group reacts with varying degrees of outrage. Marco, unsurprisingly, simply calls Cassie a coward, choosing to selfishly focus on her own needs rather than the sacrifices it takes to save the world. Rachel sees Cassie quitting as a condemnation of everything Rachel is, that Cassie would rather leave than be like her. Tobias simply flies away, and Jake tells her that she can’t use her morphing abilities at all, if she’s not part of the group.
Not in the best head space, Cassie decides to go for a ride in the woods. As she rides, she comes across a small girl being chased by a bear. Cassie jumps into action and manages to snag the girl, but as the horse panics, they both are knocked into a near by river. Cassie almost drowns, but wakes up later on the shore, with the girl standing near her. The girl’s name is Karen, and Cassie is immediately suspicious of her, noting that she doesn’t speak like a kid. She quickly figures out that Karen was the one spying on her, and Karen confronts Cassie, saying she knows what she is, and that Cassie killed her brother. Karen is a Controller, and the Yeerk’s brother was the one Controlling the Hork Bajir Cassie had killed the other day. After seeing her brother die, Karen tracked Cassie and saw her, as a wolf, disappear into a bush, and then re-emerge as a human girl. More worryingly, Karen says that there are some Yeerks who have suspected for a while now that the “Andalite bandits” might be humans instead.
Cassie goes above and beyond to play this off as not true and that Karen has “quite the imagination for a kid.” Besides, they’re both now lost in the woods with a leopard on the loose, so she tries to distract Karen with this fact. Internally, Cassie panics. The Yeerk in Karen knows the truth about them, but simply taking her out is impossible: Karen herself is just a little girl. Further, Karen’s leg has been injured along the way, so Cassie must choose to actively help her survive or leave her behind. Of course, she helps her.
As they walk, the two discuss the morality of what the Yeerks are doing (all while Cassie continues to act as if she is simply indulging Karen’s crazy theories). Karen, more and more enraged by Cassie’s continued pretending, rants about the Andalites as arrogant busy bodies. She says the Yeerks have a right to expand, and the Andalites are all terrible. Cassie points out that if she’s on the side of these all terrible Andalites, then why is she helping?
Night is falling, and the two come across a cave. While Cassie is exploring it for bears, Karen is attacked by the leopard. Cassie morphs wolf and scares it away, but this confirms everything Karen has been saying and puts an end to Cassie’s act.
The two hunker down in the cave. As they continue to talk, Cassie notes some strangeness in the way the Yeerk is talking. It seems the Yeerk may feel slightly bad about Controlling a child. Through these conversations, Cassie begins to think that there might be another way. The next day they continue these conversations, this time with Cassie specifically trying to lead the Yeerk through morality exercises, asking her how it feels to have the real Karen crying in her mind. Cassie also goes into her own qualms about participating in a war and the violence that entails. Karen confesses that there are similar Yeerks out there who think it is wrong to take unwilling hosts. Cassie’s hopes rise even more.
This is interrupted when the leopard attacks again. An osprey attacks it several times, but the leopard still manages to drag Karen away, crying Cassie’s help. Cassie quickly deduces that the osprey is Marco and rushes to morph a wolf and keep him away from Karen, knowing what he will do. But the leopard isn’t scared by her wolf morph this time, and Karen is only saved when Marco shows up as a gorilla.
Marco quickly figures out what is going on and insists that they do something about Karen. Cassie doesn’t know what to do, but decides they should hear from the little girl herself, without the Yeerk. So she presses her wolf ear to the girl’s and becomes Controlled herself. Marco calls her an idiot and rushes to morph a bird and fly away, quickly understanding that the Yeerk will now have morphing abilities, too (something Cassie somehow forgot to realize!)
Now Controlled, Cassie learns the Yeerk’s name is Aftran. Aftran sorts through Cassie’s memories, and we get quick flashes of scenes from prior books with Aftran’s commentary. She notes that the Vissers are more concerned with in-fighting than the war (referring to book #5), watches Cassie panic after killing the termite queen and is confused by her caring so much (book #9), and laughs at the Andalite toilet episode (book #14). Cassie realizes that she has put all of her friends at risk as now Aftran knows them all. Aftran morphs a bird and flies away. From the air Aftran/Cassie see two groups: the Animorphs flying around as birds, and a group of Controllers on the ground. Aftran warns the Controllers about the “Andalite bandits” as birds, and flies on. Cassie notes that she didn’t give away their secret.
Aftran flies back to Karen and re-takes her. Cassie sees her crying, and knows that it is the Yeerk in control, and the Yeerk who is crying. Aftran rants about how unfair it is, to be born as a species so limited by its own body, unable to see the world around them, and to understand what Cassie is asking her to do, to return to the Yeerk pool and stay there forever. She finds a caterpillar and proposes a deal: if Cassie morphs this caterpillar, and then lets herself get stuck in that morph, in a body similar to the Yeerk’s, then Aftran will return to the pool and let Karen go free. Aftran points out that she will keep her word, because if she didn’t mean to, letting Cassie get stuck in morph when she has a much-desired morph capable body, would be a complete waste. Cassie agrees, and once morphed, in despair and loneliness, retreats to the caterpillar’s mind.
The story switches to Jake’s perspective, and after a brief run in with the roaming Controllers, the group catches up with Karen and caterpillar!Cassie. Karen is crying and saying she can’t believe Cassie did it, that she tried to stop her in the end, but caterpillars can’t hear, so she didn’t know. Cassie is stuck as a caterpillar. Karen explains their deal, and Jake lets every Animoph decide on their own what to do about it. Eventually, they all walk away, unwilling to undo Cassie’s sacrifice.
A few days later, the group watch as Cassie emerges from her cocoon as a butterfly. Ax casually asks whether Cassie would prefer to be a butterfly to a human. The group are shocked, and it turns out that since the caterpillar essentially “morphed” to a butterfly, the time clock should be reset.
The book ends back with Cassie as a human. The rehab center gets funding from a bank president whose daughter insisted they do something for it (Aftran had been in Karen for the sole purpose of spying on said bank president). And Cassie runs into Karen in the mall; she’s free and Aftran held up her end of the deal. Cassie notes that as long as she can fight for things like this, for finding another way, that is enough.
Peace, Love, and Animals: This book is very different from other Animorphs books. For the majority of it, it’s just one Animorphs character and a Yeerk, discussing very complicated moral and philosophical quandaries. It’s clear that this book was important to Applegate, and that she had some clear points on war, violence, and right/wrong that she was trying to convey. And I really enjoyed much of this. Further, the character of Aftran is excellent.
But I still ran into many of the same struggles I’ve had with Cassie in the past (and that I know will recur in future books, especially towards the end of the series with one big decision she makes). So, I’ll try to lay it out as best as I can.
Much of this book illustrates why I can never fully get behind Cassie as a character. She is clearly a character that is given the privilege of making the “right” choices, because she’s in a work of fiction. Many, many choices she makes in this book are only “right” in hindsight. Morally? They’re probably right most of the time. But on the grand scale of things, Cassie is incredibly, foolishly, unforgivably reckless with the lives of not only her friends but an entire planet (as well as the freed Hork Bajir, and the Chee, to name a few others), by choosing to quit because she doesn’t want to pay the same price the others do, knowing that she’s leaving them to an even more uphill battle, paying that same price over and over again, and then later letting Aftran Control her.
And yes, I agree with Marco. It’s selfish and self-righteous. And the only reason we can close this book and feel good about what she’s done (which I’m not undermining, it’s incredibly important and impressive, managing to talk around a Yeerk, something no other Animorph could do) is because she’s been given a pass. Her character is allowed to make stupid decisions that always turn out for the best. And this just reads as false to me. It undermines the reality of the toughness behind the rest of the Animorphs’ decisions. Jake’s slow fall. Rachel’s reckless courage. Marco’s cold detachment. These characters suffer severe changes and make huge sacrifices of themselves, choices that impact them for the rest of their lives (which we see play out in the end) because they are forced to live a real war story. Cassie comes out the other side ok, but it’s because she’s been allowed to make reckless, selfish decisions, to keep her soul more intact, and not pay a price for it.
Again and again we see her making decisions based on her own ability to live with herself and feel good about herself, and letting other step in to suffer the more extreme consequences. In Jake’s book, #16, she wants to kill the Yeerk, but wants Jake to literally do the dirty work for her. In Megamorphs #2, she chooses to save the alien race, and is only spared from destroying humanity’s future by Tobias shouldering the harder decision. And those are just in the most recent books! Cassie’s character is the only one that is given the privilege of making decisions based purely on her own feelings, to not sacrifice massive pieces of herself in the war to save Earth, without having it blow up in her face.
As I’ve said, I think Cassie is an important character for the series. But I wish there had been some type of more realistic balance that was struck between Cassie’s unique view on the world and the realities that that view would need to confront in a war.
Our Fearless Leader: Jake gets a few chapters of his own in this book, which is the first time we’ve seen a change of narrator in a regular series book. I can’t remember if this happens again or not, but it further illustrates the importance of this book in Applegate’s eyes. Jake’s big moment is notably not making a decision about what to do with Karen/Aftran after they discover her with caterpillar!Cassie. He lets this be one where everyone must come to their own conclusion about what is right.
Xena, Warrior Princess: I’ll go into more of Rachel’s stuff in the “Couples Watch” section, since I think Rachel and Cassie’s friendship is the big relationship of this book. But Rachel’s moments with Cassie when they’re confronting her in the barn are big. Rachel, like Marco, can’t get behind the idea of not sacrificing oneself for the larger cause. But Rachel also clearly loves Cassie and respects her, unwilling to agree that she’s a coward. But as Cassie goes on to explain that she can’t stay in this fight because she’s going numb to the violence, Rachel walks away. Cassie tries to call after her that they can still be friends, but Rachel interrupts to say “No” and:
“See, you’ve just said the whole world can drop dead, so long as you, Cassie, don’t have to end up turning into me.”
It’s a brutal put-down, all the worse because Cassie can’t deny it.
A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t do much in this book either. He silently leaves when they confront Cassie about quitting, never really saying much. But when they discover Cassie stuck as a caterpillar, he says he can respect her choice to not want to live in a vioent world, saying that he is forced to live with violence every day, and can’t blame someone for not wanting to live that way.
The Comic Relief: Marco is by far the most harsh on Cassie’s decision to quit.
Marco laughed a short, brutal laugh. “Fine. You have your morals and your fine feelings and all that. We’ll go off and risk our lives to save the world. You just sit here and feel righteous.”
But he’s also the one to come to her rescue as an osprey (it’s never made clear what exactly he was doing flying around over there anyways). And then, towards the end, the leopard attacks Karen/Aftran again after Cassie’s been stuck and the group has discovered them, and Marco takes it out as a gorilla, saving the Yeerk. In the end, he, too, wants to respect Cassie’s sacrifice.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax does practically nothing in this book, other than deliver what some may call the deux ex machina at the end, with the whole “naturally occurring morphing” loop hole of convenience. There a brief bit when, during Jake’s narration, we get a brief fight scene with the roaming Controllers, and Ax has to run off with a wounded eagle!Rachel. But…yeah, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with stuff for him.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There isn’t a lot of body horror in this one, other than the typical “morph to a bug” nastiness. However, I will note here how effective the threat of the leopard was through out the middle majority of this story. It kept popping in and out, and Cassie has a good mental dialogue moment going over how dangerous leopards are, especially because you never know they’re there. It adds a good level of tension to a book that is mostly made up of talking.
Couples Watch!: There’s practically nothing for our romantic couples in this one. Instead, I’d say that Rachel and Cassie’s friendship is the major player in this book. Throughout it all, Rachel is the most hurt by Cassie’s decision to quit, but also the most supportive of her the entire time. In the first confrontation in the barn, when Cassie agrees with Marco’s assessment that she’s a coward, Rachel, even while mad, says that that isn’t true.
And then, when Marco returns to tell them the craziness that Cassie is up to, letting herself get infested, we have this:
Marco said something he didn’t really mean about Cassie not being an Animorph anymore, so she wasn’t our problem. Rachel knocked him on his butt. Marco is my best friend, but there are times I admire Rachel’s directness. [Jake’s perspective]
And lastly, when the discover Cassie as a caterpillar, Rachel is the most enraged against Aftran, and the last to walk away. But when she does, she insists on carrying the leaf that caterpillar!Cassie is on, saying that she will look after her and keep her safe.
I love their friendship!
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: No Visser Three in this one! Other than the mini rant Aftran goes on while Controlling Cassie about all the in-fighting within the Visser political arena. I guess at least we know that isn’t only these two that are like petty children in the school yard.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: When Cassie morphs the caterpillar, the book does a very good job of highlighting just how awful this life will be. Cassie’s descriptions of her own despair and loneliness, and then choosing to simply retreat into the caterpillar’s simplistic mind as an escape, it’s pretty terrible. I do think that one aspect of Cassie and Aftran’s whole deal that was notably not discussed was comparable life spans. Given that Visser Three has been around for many decades, we can assume that Yeerks have at least similar life spans to humans. So even if Aftran returns to the Pool, she has an entire life before her. But she’s asking Cassie to morph a caterpillar that, yes, may have similar restrictions as a Yeerk, but is going to die very, very quickly! This isn’t an equal deal at all with this in mind.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Ummm….CASSIE LETTING HERSELF GET INFESTED AND SOMEHOW FORGETTING THAT THE YEERK WILL HAVE HER MORPHING ABILITIES! For all that I appreciated this book more reading it now as an adult, this part of the book is so incredibly infuriating. It’s such a bone-headed move in every way. First, the whole goal is to get the real Karen’s perspective, which, why. Obviously she doesn’t love being Controlled!!! Second, it’s not like this is the first time we’ve seen an Animorph be Controlled. Cassie was right there during Jake’s whole ordeal, so the fact that she somehow forgets this has to go down as one of the most idiotic things in the entire series. And third, morphing ability aside, Cassie is also shocked to remember/realize that this decision has now exposed all of her friends if Aftran so chooses. It’s so incredibly irresponsible and reckless, and again, not even for any good reason.
This is from one of the chapters from Jake’s perspective, and I think it makes the most sense as a response to my earlier rant about Cassie.
“I guess sometimes you have to choose between smart, sane, ruthlessness, and totally stupid, insane hope,” I [Jake] said, not even realizing I was speaking out loud. “You can’t just pick one and stick with it, either. Each time it comes up, you have to try and make your best decision. Most of the time, I guess I have to go with being smart and sane. But I don’t want to live in a world where people don’t try the stupid, crazy, hopeful thing sometimes.”
My problem is that her stupid, crazy, hopeful choices ALWAYS work, and the rest are never allowed that saving grace or must bail her out from the stupid, crazy, hopeful choice that if it had went through really would have ruined it all.
Scorecard: Yeerks 4, Animorphs 9
I’m not going to give this any change. It’s a huge victory for Cassie, personally, to convince a Yeerk (a Yeerk whose brother she killed!) to return to the Pool and not infest anyone else. But in the grand scheme of things, right now, this is a smaller achievement. I know there is a payoff later, but we’ll add that when we get there.
Rating: I liked this book more than I did as a kid. But it also highlights my overall problems with Cassie as a character. I think that after this she’s much less wishy-washy about the war, which I will appreciate. But I know for a fact that her questionable (and conveniently lucky) bad decisions will continue, especially in a big way towards the end. Ugh.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!