Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

From the gingerbread house to the cornucopia: gastronomic utopia as social critique in Homecoming and The Hunger Games

Sarah Hardstaff

Sarah Hardstaff is a PhD student at Homerton College, Cambridge University, under the supervision of Maria Nikolajeva. Her research focuses on the novels of Mildred Taylor and Cynthia Voigt, applying ideas from economic criticism and functional linguistics. Sarah's MPhil thesis explored food poverty as a theme in children's literature.

Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming (1981) and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) both tell the story of a young female protagonist – Dicey Tillerman and Katniss Everdeen respectively – struggling to navigate social structures that either actively perpetuate or overlook the problem of hunger. The dream of an end to hunger, of a utopian solution to poverty – a “dream... [that] has haunted humanity for many centuries” (Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear 55) – is omnipresent in these novels. The ‘gastronomic utopia’ in particular is a common feature both in folklore and children’s literature. However, in the novels examined here the utopia turns out to be both artificial and dangerous. Indeed, both Homecoming and The Hunger Games promote the rejection of false utopias in favour of greater economic equality, with the novels’ structures showing the characters shifting between varying degrees of economic precariousness, and ending with a fairly modest improvement in circumstances. These endings are in stark contrast to the way the theme of utopia functions in folktales, and reflect both an increased capacity, and a desire, to work within existing systems in a way which could not have satisfied the original folktale audience.

Both Voigt and Collins respond to ideas about the position of children in society and in particular, the question of child autonomy or self-sufficiency. Both authors report a ‘what if?’ moment as the driver for their stories, with Voigt attributing the inspiration for Homecoming to a group of children she saw at the supermarket one day, wondering what would happen if nobody came back for them. [1] Similarly, Collins recalls the juxtaposition of two groups of young people in very different circumstances – reality television competitors and soldiers – as the inspiration for Katniss’ story. [2] The children left alone in the parked car and the young people at war must both in some way fend for themselves. In the novels, this idea of self-reliance is mediated through food imagery that recalls the trials of folk characters like Hansel and Gretel. Voigt’s novel is a product of a time in which changing concepts of childhood were lamented, for instance in concerns about the divorce rate, apparent increases in child abuse, abandonment and running away, and child criminality as outlined by Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood, published in 1982 (see especially 135-138), and echoed in Marilyn Fain Apseloff’s 1992 discussion of Homecoming. Collins, meanwhile, is responding specifically to a perceived educational need to clearly delineate entertainment and news, again raising concerns about changing concepts of childhood (Hudson np). Collins and Voigt’s characters also personify ongoing struggles. Since the publication of The Hunger Games in 2008, the year the global financial crisis began, the figure of the hungry child in a land of plenty has become more prevalent. [3] The authors’ emphasis on hunger combined with the rise in food poverty during the recession mean that, despite the nearly thirty-year gap in publication dates, both novels speak to current and persistent problems of childhood.

Maria Nikolajeva has written extensively on the use of utopian imagery and the myth of the Cornucopia, noting that in many of the idyllic worlds of children’s literature, “home is a cornucopia, and food is there simply because it belongs there” (The Aesthetics of Children’s Literature138). Both the depiction of these idylls, and also that of settings which deviate from this standard, in part function to question assumptions of unlimited plenty. In these two novels, different settings are explored which offer varying degrees of food security to the protagonists, providing a means of critiquing societies that allow children to go without food. Many young readers will be familiar with the way in which ideas of national identity are habitually imbued with idealised imagery: America in particular has often been characterised as representing a cornucopia, a land of plenty or ‘new Eden’, to early European migrants, a paradise on earth. William Sayers notes that “the utopian theme was widespread in popular American culture [by the early twentieth century] and would have been acutely known to those for whom its promise remained unfulfilled” (334). Homecoming reminds us that America has never been an Eden for everyone, while The Hunger Games exposes the exploitation and poverty inherently built into the economic structures needed to underpin the illusion of unlimited plenty for the few. Both novels work subtly to question the belief in utopia and the myth of the cornucopia.

In European folk traditions, the land of plenty has a long history as a popular motif, and is named in many cultures: in Britain, it was known as the Land of Cockaigne, in Germany, the Schlaraffenland, and so on. In this land of plenty: “all physical reality is edible…Houses and fences are made of cake and sausage... And in the sky are roast chickens, geese, and pigeons. They fly directly into the mouths of those too lazy to catch them” (Sayers 332). While for some the imagined place functioned as a parody, targeting the vices of “sloth, greed, and gullibility” (332), for others it may have represented complete freedom from toil and hunger: “As a result [of famine], the abundance and excess of food became a popularly recurring theme in early modern folklore and legend” (Nugent and Clark 45). The folk image of the land of plenty made its way to the New World, and indeed formed part of the “utopian pull” for European immigrants, as can be seen in examples related by Lyman Tower Sargent in a recent article on the American Cockaigne (25). Nikolajeva draws parallels between this imaginary place and the representation of plenty in children’s literature, most notably, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (From Mythic to Linear 55-56); Sargent too comments on the prevalence of Cockaigne imagery in children’s literature (33).

For Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, the continuing prevalence of utopian imagery in popular culture is linked not to escapism or greed but to humanity’s hunger drive, a manifestation of unspoken desires for social justice (197); Bloch also emphasises the importance of bodily hunger as a primary driver of human action, calling the stomach “the first lamp into which oil must be poured” (65). The commonly employed motif of the gastronomic utopia in children’s literature can be assessed within this framework in terms of its socioeconomic implications. In fantasy written for children and young people, access to an idyllic world often entails access to unlimited quantities of food without the foregrounding of economic means, as we can see, for example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling), with the over-indulgent descriptions of feasts (76, 92, 149) and food functioning as a reward or sign of approval (214). The abundance of food in Rowling’s work can be interpreted as ‘entitlement’, and further evidence of a middle-class situation where food appears ‘as if by magic’, as it does for residents of the Capitol in The Hunger Games. Alternatively, food in this instance can be interpreted as a benevolent cornucopia, the fulfilment of the hungry and neglected child’s most pressing needs, reminiscent of the simplistic symbolism of the folktale, in which the meek overthrow the powerful before taking on the right to power themselves.

Susan Honeyman notes that, “Gastronomic utopias are not just the products of hungry dreams; they can be fantasies created to fool and control their audience, as well as cautionary tales warning against such traps” (47). Such food traps can be seen throughout children’s literature, with the description of the fake feast offered to the children in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (143), for example, bearing striking similarities to that of the food Katniss experiences in the Capitol. Utopian imagery in narratives for young people is thus frequently exposed as an illusion, and food is often used as a means of deception or entrapment. The ironic Cornucopia in The Hunger Games exemplifies the image of the false utopia – it is “a giant golden horn shaped like a cone with a curved tail... spilling over with the things that will give us life here in the arena” (179). As all contestants in the arena are in direct competition with each other, the Cornucopia is also the site of the most intense violence: food and weaponry are seen as equally important to survival. The poisonous berries Katniss finds in the arena also have the qualities of false utopia. While they act as a lure, as a possible means of survival, Katniss is able to identify both varieties of poisonous berries in the arena through Rue’s information-sharing and the teaching of her father. The Cornucopia itself is explicitly presented as a trap, and to approach it is comparable to approaching the gingerbread house in full knowledge of the witch who lives within, except that in this case, the child cannot kill the witch herself, but must instead compete with other hungry children while the witch looks on. This is reminiscent of the competition between the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the factory itself functioning as an illusory utopia: as with The Hunger Games, some children are seen as deserving punishment due to their own actions and are thus denied access to the riches bestowed upon the winner. [4]

Other settings in the novels seem to disguise their true nature or reveal it only gradually.In Homecoming, Rockland Park is the first place that Dicey and younger siblings James, Maybeth and Sammy are able to stay for more than one night. While the park presents its own dangers, it also offers a subtle utopian undercurrent, with the gentle ocean waves a stark contrast to those of the children’s hometown: “Here, the little waves murmured and gurgled, like contented children” (49). However, there are hints of the park’s deception, with descriptions of plenty of water immediately juxtaposed with descriptions of thirst. Here the Tillermans also meet runaways Louis and Edie: James Henke draws a direct parallel between these characters and the Lotus-eaters of the Odyssey (49), suggesting the wooded parkland as a place which offers individual freedom, but with an element of escapism. In The Hunger Games, Gale and Katniss’s woods perform a similar function to Rockland Park. The woods provide a steady food source but do not offer long-term solutions to the characters’ problems:

From this place, we are invisible, but have a clear view of the valley, which is teeming with summer life, greens to gather, roots to dig, fish iridescent in the sunlight. The day is glorious, with a blue sky and soft breeze. The food’s wonderful, with the cheese seeping into the warm bread and the berries bursting in our mouths. (10)

In the folktale tradition, preserved in literature for young readers, the forest often functions as “the place in which the traveller must realise their separateness” (Spufford 29). Jack Zipes argues that the forest is “the place where you are tested” ("The Grimness of Contemporary Fairy Tales"). Thus the woods can function as a place of individual growth and self-realisation, a training ground; once our tests are over, we leave the forest and enter (or re-enter) society. It is in the woods that, like Dicey in Rockland Park, Katniss begins the poaching that will keep her family alive, and both often refer back to their experiences in these settings, emphasising the importance of these formative tests of character. Alternatively, we can see the woods as a place of escapism, a place where we go as part of a futile attempt to sever ourselves from the outside world. Nikolajeva argues that “to enter the jungle is not simply escape, it is regression, a frustrated attempt to return to the sorrowless idyll of childhood” (From Mythic to Linear 172). It is perhaps then also a world in which we can turn away from our responsibilities towards others. The stark contrast between the idyllic woods of home and the woods of the arena in The Hunger Games emphasises separateness as simultaneously utopian and dystopian: to live free of responsibility to others offers both freedom and danger, as the Tillerman children also discover when forced to flee from a police car patrolling the park. By the end of The Hunger Games, the bursting open of berries is revealed as equivalent to suicide, and their appearance in the idyllic woods foreshadows this: regression is ultimately reactionary. The individual freedom on offer here is temporary, the “negative freedom” of escape from interference and tyranny, described by Isaiah Berlin as “the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others” (122), not the “positive freedom” of permanent self-governance that “derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master” (131): in other words, the retreat to the forest offers no opportunities for long-term autonomy.

Another setting which provides more balance, but still represents something of an abandonment of security in favour of increased liberty, is the circus in Homecoming. In terms of the novel’s structure, the circus provides hope after episodes in which this has been denied for the children: with the circus, “[They were] busy and contented… They were traveling and had purpose and destination” (290). This setting thus offers a temporary escape from the harsh realities of child maltreatment as perpetrated by Cousin Eunice and Rudyard. Dicey’s daydream reveals an image of the circus as an emblem of possibility:

If it was Dicey’s circus, she would go everywhere. She planned it out to herself... First, all around the United States, then up to Canada and down to Mexico. She would make her circus get famous and get jobs in Europe, and maybe even China or Japan. They’d have trailers for land travel and a ship of their own for sea travel. She would have real lions. (290)

The circus itself, “a separate wishful world”, in Bloch’s words (364), is not a ‘paradise on earth’, but offers glimpses of potential future freedoms. For Dicey and her siblings, the circus also offers a chance to work in exchange for food and shelter, but in contrast to their experience at Rudyard’s farm and Eunice’s house, here the rewards of their labour are not contingent on severe restrictions to their autonomy. However, by rejecting a life on the road for the permanent shelter of Abigail’s farm, Dicey seems to reject the escapist fantasy of the circus-utopia in favour of a more achievable security, one which can meet the needs of all her siblings. Structurally then, the novel works by offering a series of potential homes, before the children arrive at one which is ‘just right’: reminiscent of the tale of “The Three Bears”, itself adapted from folklore (Heiner np), Eunice offers too little freedom, while the circus, perhaps, offers too much.

Other seemingly utopian settings offer total food security, at least for a limited time, but deny possibilities for self-realisation. Nikolajeva states that “distinctive features of the dystopian society [in literature for young readers] include absence of hunger, unemployment and sickness” (Power, Voice and Subjectivity 77), in which case dystopian writers have been active in perpetuating a perplexing and profoundly ahistorical myth that totalitarian societies have ever made adequate provision for the food security of their citizens. In The Hunger Games, rather than the protagonist coming from the well-fed elite and learning how to be free, Katniss is denied both food and freedom. According to Robert Leeson, “The anonymous author of The Land of Cockaygne, one of many medieval ballads and stories about paradise on earth, said that any noble who wanted to reach that happy land would have to wade through muck for seven years” (25). Taking this premise, the presence of powerful elites in paradise may act as a warning of the deceptive nature of the utopia presented. In The Hunger Games, the Capitol acts as a counterfeit Land of Cockaigne, luxurious but also meaningless without hard work, and representative of a food security inaccessible to the majority of Panem’s population. Katniss reflects, “What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?” (79). Like the Land of Cockaigne, the Capitol is associated with laziness and greed as much as with the fulfilment of the dreams of the hungry. As in many mock-utopian visions, the extraordinary prosperity of the “the artificial candy Capitol” (126) is tainted by the absence of labour and production. In this case, production is geographically outsourced and kept invisible from the Capitol’s residents. Here, too, ‘too much’ is as troubling as ‘too little’.

The situation faced by the children in Homecoming when they are staying at Eunice’s house is also one of food security without autonomy. Their journey thus far has been predicated on a belief that reaching this house will see an end to their struggles: however, once they arrive, dreams of food are replaced with dreams of freedom. The forward-looking anxiety and hope of life on the road is replaced with a routine which mirrors Eunice’s own “tedious” job:

Dicey rose early every morning, cooked the breakfasts, cleaned the kitchen, walked her family to their daily activities and hurried back to pick up her equipment and wash whatever store windows were on her schedule for the day. Then she completed whatever housekeeping chores Cousin Eunice had assigned before she went to fetch her family, played briefly with them, prepared dinner and made Cousin Eunice’s cup of tea. (184)

The language used to describe Eunice’s surroundings and Dicey’s daily activities works to solidify the sense of repetition and sameness. The resolution of hunger alone does not end oppression – indeed, food can be used as an instrument of oppression. Unlike in the cases of the false utopian food already noted, there are no descriptions of sumptuous feasts at Eunice’s; rather, food is part of the routine, suggesting that the type of food is also an indicator of the type of ‘society’ on offer: there is no culture of excess here, but no sense of optimism either.  While not an overtly terrifying opponent, Eunice’s own denial of the possibility of self-ownership is imposed on the Tillermans, and is particularly noticeable in the juxtaposition of Eunice’s expectation of constant gratitude with her use of Dicey as an unpaid child labourer. It is not Eunice’s idea of work as duty which helps the children progress, but Dicey’s idea of work as opportunity, with her fairly negotiated (and compensated) work of window-cleaning allowing the children to move on to a better place. Both the Capitol and Eunice’s house thus function as settings which provide (temporary) food security, freedom from hunger, but contingent on a certain acquiescence. What both these settings deny is the possibility of agency, that is, freedom in the sense of choice over one’s own fate.

As well as exploring the balance between security and liberty, much use is made in both novels of the juxtaposition between scarcity and plenty. In Homecoming,the “ritzy” towns the children pass through (86) offer them little respite from hunger. From the beginning of Voigt’s novel, distinctions are made between the children’s situation and the wider world around them:

They were drawn to restaurants that exuded the smell of spaghetti and pizza or fried chicken, bakeries with trays of golden doughnuts lined up behind glass windows, candy stores, where the countertop was crowded with large jars of jelly beans and sourballs and little foil-covered chocolates and peppermints dipped in crunchy white frosting; cheese shops (they each had two free samples), where the rich smell of aged cheeses mingled with fresh-ground coffee, and hot dog stands... (9)

These descriptions have a cumulative effect, emphasising both economic inequality and the hunger which will eventually lead the children to scavenge and steal. The free samples and discarded leftovers that the children can take do not offer a sustainable solution to their food poverty, and act rather as a critique of the society which provides them, exposing the illusion of plenty, and drawing reader attention to the potential inaccessibility of foodstuffs they may take for granted.

One of the ways in which this is amplified is through Homecoming’sexplicit references to the story of “Hansel and Gretel” (see, for example, 4). Zipes notes the juxtaposition of scarcity and gluttony in this traditional folktale, and links this to the story’s resolution:

While it is true that change is realized in the tales, this change reflects the desire of the lower classes to move up in the world and seize power as monarchs, not necessarily the desire to alter social relations. The endings of almost all folk tales are not solely emancipatory, but actually depict the limits of social mobility and the confines of the imagination. (Breaking the Magic Spell 33)

Unlike the folktale solution described here, the emphasis of both Homecoming and The Hunger Games is on finding a balance between scarcity and gluttony. Henke’s argument that Homecoming’s Abigail represents the cannibal witch of the Hansel and Gretel story (48), and thus by implication, that her farm represents the gingerbread house, does not fully account for the concrete, achievable security it represents for the Tillerman children; ultimately the house is not deceptively utopian in the same way as the shops and restaurants, but rather offers a realistic opportunity for the children to build a future. The sailboat at Abigail’s house is significant: the struggle to survive is not resolved here through simply having enough to eat, as at Eunice’s house, but is also dependent on the opportunities for freedom, as represented by the boat and the open ocean, and the children’s attempts to induct Abigail into an interdependent capitalism, encouraging her to sell Christmas trees and claim Social Security (see, for example, 378-383).

Similarly, for Katniss, though having enough food is an on-going concern, liberty is the ultimate goal. Both books remain unresolved on this point, with these issues revisited in the sequels. Though both girls succeed to an extent in their battle to overcome the violence of the false utopia, neither is given access to the gastronomic utopia of the Capitol or the ‘ritzy towns’ of Homecoming, nor is this presented as being of value. For both girls, the narrative is circular: their trials do not necessarily result in a significant improvement to their quality of life, but take them back to only a slightly improved version of the precarious security with which they started. Katniss returns to her district and family, and although as a winner of the Games the day-to-day struggle to find food has been overcome, she is now on the radar of angered Gamesmakers. Dicey and her siblings find themselves in a home by the ocean with an unstable mother-figure (Abigail is described by other characters as “crazy” [297]), a situation seemingly identical to their lives before being abandoned by their mother. But while their mother is the double of Maybeth in character, Abigail is Dicey’s double and thus we are left with an impression of improved prospects and diminished precariousness.

So what ideological implications do these endings have? Interestingly, the word ‘enough’ appears with seemingly unusual frequency in Homecoming. The aim is to benefit from a more equitable allocation of resources, rather than the total power inversion of the traditional folktale. Thus the goal in the novels considered here is not necessarily to destroy the powerful and wealthy, but rather to stake an individual claim to life, liberty and happiness. While the right to survive is presented as an entitlement for all children, the struggle to obtain ‘enough’ is characterised by individual hard work, sometimes enjoyable but sometimes dangerous. While Katniss comes home bearing riches like Hansel and Gretel, and Dicey gets her sailboat, both of these victories have a temporary, unresolved and almost illusory feel. It is the homecoming itself, with its promise of ‘enough’, that is the real victory. These hunger fictions offer rather a more balanced and nuanced vision of the young characters’ desires than folktales, reconciling harsh economic realities with an American vision of individual responsibility and achievement. The political contradictions inherent in this position make it clear that neither novel promotes a specific solution; rather, different solutions are presented and rejected in order to encourage readers to critique and assess a variety of socioeconomic structures.




1. “I saw a bunch of kids waiting in a car at a parking lot by the market where I was going to do my shopping. For some reason, I wondered as I walked into the store, what would happen if nobody came back to get them?” (“Cynthia Voigt Interview Transcript” np).

2. “I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.” (The Hunger Games np [“Getting to Know Suzanne Collins”])

3. This was highlighted in a recent UNICEF report, “Children of the Recession”. For instance, out of the 41 countries represented, the US appears in 37th place on the question, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” (12)

4.The means of reward is essentially the same: in The Hunger Games, prizes for the winning district are “largely consisting of food” (23). Augustus Gloop’s greed, which leads him to contaminate the chocolate lake, is similar to the better-fed tributes’ use of explosives to prevent others from accessing their hoarded food supply. The main difference is that ‘moral’ children are also sacrificed in the Games, providing a stronger critique of the nature of the competition itself..



Works Cited

Apseloff, Marilyn Fain. “Abandonment: the New Realism of the Eighties.” Children’s Literature in Education 23.2 (1992): 101-106.

Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight. Vol. 1. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1959/1986. 3 vols.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. London: Scholastic, 2008.

Dahl, Roald. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. London: Allen and Unwin, 1967.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. "Hansel and Gretel." Grimms' Fairy Tales. Trans. Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes. Web, 2008, accessed 19 July 2016.

Heiner, Heidi Anne. "History of Goldilocks and the Three Bears." SurLaLune Fairy Tales. Web, 2002, accessed 25 Sept. 2015.

Henke, James. "Dicey, Odysseus, and Hansel and Gretel: the lost children in Voigt's 'Homecoming'." Children's Literature in Education 16.1 (1985): 45-52.

Honeyman, Susan. "Gastronomic utopias: the legacy of political hunger in African American lore." Children's Literature 38.1 (2010): 44-63.

Hudson, Hannah Trierweiler. "Q&A with Hunger Games Author Suzanne Collins." Scholastic Teachers. Web, nd, accessed 27 Sept. 2015.

Leeson, Robert. Reading and Righting: the Past, Present and Future of Fiction for the Young. London: Collins, 1985.

L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Square Fish, 1962.

Nikolajeva, Maria. The Aesthetics of Children’s Literature: An Introduction. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

—. From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children's Literature. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

—. Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Nugent, Janay and Megan Clark. "A loaded plate: food symbolism and the early modern Scottish household." Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 30.1 (2010): 43-63.

Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

Sayers, William. "Joe Hill's 'Pie in the Sky' and Swedish reflexes in the Land of Cockaigne." American Speech 77.3 (2002): 331-336.

Sargent, Lyman Tower. "The American Cockaigne from the Sixteenth Century to the Shmoo and Beyond." Utopian Studies 26.1 (2015): 19-40.

Spufford, Francis. The Boy that Books Built. London: Faber & Faber, 2002.

Voigt, Cynthia. Homecoming. New York: Atheneum Books, 1981.

—. "Cynthia Voigt Interview Transcript." Scholastic Teachers. Web, nd, accessed 25 Sept. 2015.

UNICEF Office of Research. "Children of the Recession: the Impact of the Economic Crisis on Child Well-Being in Rich Countries." Innocenti Report Card 12, Florence: UNICEF Office of Research, 2014.

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

—. "The Grimness of Contemporary Fairy Tales." Cambridge, 20 February 2013. Seminar.




Sarah Hardstaff

Volume 19, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, August 2016

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"From the gingerbread house to the cornucopia: gastronomic utopia as social critique in Homecoming and The Hunger Games" © Sarah Hardstaff, 2016
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