Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What we're reading: Fictional autobiography

I picked up Chris Bohjalian's new book, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, read a few pages, put it down, and came back to it a few days later, because of a misunderstanding. At one point in the first chapter, the author refers to a part of Vermont as the "Northeast Kingdom," and since I had never heard anyone refer to it in this way, I mistakenly assumed that this was a dystopian novel set in the future when America had been broken up into kingdoms. Not so. Apparently this is a common nickname for a certain part of Vermont. I was reluctant to read yet another in the long line of dystopian tales (and as a teen librarian, I have read more than my fair share!), so I put it off; but the prose was powerful enough to tempt me to come back to it after I finished the other two books I was planning to read, and then I figured it out.

But in a weird way, this IS a dystopian novel, in the sense that it takes place in the wake of a disaster, and new lives have to be constructed. It is an immensely personal dystopian story, because it is about one 17-year-old girl who is the daughter of a Vermont nuclear power plant engineer. He gets the blame for a reactor meltdown that turns 30 square miles of the state into a radioactive wasteland (there are rumors that he was drunk at the time of the accident), and she experiences, pardon the pun, the fallout. Her mother also worked at the plant and was present when the explosion took place, so in one moment Emily becomes an orphan and is simultaneously homeless (forcibly evacuated from the contaminated zone), and notorious for being the daughter of the most hated people in Vermont. The book does not take place in the future: It is realistic, it is present-day, and it is chilling on many levels.

Emily's story, told in first person in a disjointed, random style that is completely expressive of the way a teen's mind might work in these circumstances, shows so clearly how one person can take initial impressions--perhaps erroneous ones--and build her whole life on them. It shows how teenagers can create a story from their self-involvement that may be largely untrue but that makes perfect sense in the light of their incomplete information. It highlights the tragedy of how young lives can just fall through the cracks of our society, and no one notices or cares, or if they do, it's not enough. It highlights the courage and also the chilling pragmatism that street kids have to adopt in order to survive.

It also shows (for me) that allowing any part of our energy strategy to rely on nuclear power is sheer insanity.

Finally, the book showcases the brilliance of Chris Bohjalian's prose, characterization, and storytelling skills. This is somehow the first book of his that I have read (which is surprising, considering he's written 18 others!), but it definitely won't be the last. And I hope that someone thinks to nominate Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands for the Alex Award this year--it's the perfect candidate. You can find it on the New Book Shelves at all three libraries.

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