Saturday, November 21, 2009


I just closed the pages of Neal Shusterman's Unwind. Usually, I like to think about a book a little...let it simmer...before I blog about it. This one had me heading straight for the computer.

I picked up Unwind at the urging of a couple of my students. Science fiction is not normally my genre of choice, but their book talks were intriguing. Unwind is a young adult novel, but that label is misleading. There is nothing lightweight or juvenile about this book.

The book takes place in the not-too-distant future after the second Civil War. Called the Heartland War, the fight was started by militant factions of the pro-life and pro-choice movements. Peace was finally achieved when the Bill of Life was signed. The Bill states that a child cannot be harmed between the moment of conception and its thirteenth birthday, at which time a parent can choose to retroactively abort their child by having it unwound. Unwinding is a process in which the child is harvested for body parts. Every single part is used, so the child is considered to still be "alive." Once a person reaches the age of eighteen, they are a legal adult and can no longer be signed over to the state for unwinding.

The premise is simultaneously intriguing and horrifying. I had not previously read any of Shusterman's work, and I feared the book might become a shrill political statement on the abortion issue, although I was uncertain on which side of the issue he would fall. Here's the interesting thing...I've read the book, and I still don't know. I have not yet gone in search of that information out here on the information super-highway, and I'm thinking I won't. I kind of like not knowing.

The novel follows three teens, Connor, Risa, and Lev, who have been signed over for unwinding. Connor, 16, suffers from impulse control and a hair-trigger temper. Throughout the novel, he struggles to think beyond the first thought that enters his head to the second, usually wiser, thought. In this respect, he resembles almost every teenage boy I know. His parents get tired of dealing with his poor choices and sign him over to be unwound. He runs away and is thrown together with Risa, 15, and Lev, 13. Risa has been a ward of the state, unwanted since birth. The budget for the overcrowded state homes is tight, so any ward without a talent that justifies the cost of their care is signed over for unwinding. Lev is a "tithe." His religious-fundamentalist parents take the call to tithe 10% of their possessions seriously. Lev is the 10th child. He is prepared from birth (read brainwashed) to be unwound when he turns 13.

The three meet other Unwinds on the run. Each story is more awful than the one before it. Hayden's parents signed him over for unwinding as the culminating act of spite in a bitter divorce. Each parent would see him unwound before allowing the other to have custody. Embry's parents died and left him money, so his greedy aunt signed him over. As I read, I thought, "Okay, Shusterman is pro-life. He's making the point that these parents make horrible rationalizations to justify terminating the life of their child."

It's not that simple, though. Shusterman also includes the overcrowded state homes filled with unwanted babies who become unwanted, unwound teens. Then there is "storking." Storking is a law which says a parent can leave their unwanted newborn on someone else's front porch. The person who finds the child is required by law to raise it whether they want it or not...more often than not a recipe for disaster. Lev's family was storked three times, making the decision to "tithe" him easier.

Lest you think the book is one big convoluted social comment, let me assure you it's also a page-turning rollercoaster of a story. The adults are baffling, and almost universally unlikeable, but the teen protagonists are real and round and suck you in. The stakes for these kids are high, and the suspense and sense of urgency keeps you reading. The inevitable scene in which we see a character unwound left me cold with horror. I fully expect to have nightmares tonight.

In spite of possible nightmares, I don't regret reading the book. The best adjective for the experience would be "haunting." Shusterman illustrates there are no easy, pat answers to the abortion question. His views on some other social issues are clearer. Society has replaced the terms "black" and "white" with "umber" and "sienna" to describe skin color, but the underlying racism still exists. One of my favorite secondary characters, CyFy, has two dads who are m-married, and they are the sanest adults in the story. And I cackled out loud when someone asks Connor why he doesn't know more about a historical event, and he responds by saying it was the last chapter in the textbook and they couldn't get to it because of state testing.

I have two teenage sons who routinely test my mettle as a parent. They are good boys, but sometimes they make poor choices. They have made me lay awake with worry, cry, and rail at the universe, but the idea of throwing my hands in the air and disposing of them is unthinkable. I can't imagine a world where it would be routinely accepted. Shusterman can. He opens the last section of the story with a quote from Albert Einstein.

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

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