Friday, April 24, 2015

Unwind, Neal Shusterman

Oh. My. Gosh. This has to be one of THE creepiest dystopian books I've ever picked up. Even more disturbing that Hunger Games.

This is set up post "Heartland War" which was a war that was fought between the Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life people. It got out of hand that even the military was unable to quell either side. A compromise was was protected from conception through age 12. Then, if the child were still unwanted, s/he could be retroactively aborted anytime between the ages of 13-18 if the child weren't technically "dead". In other words, their entire bodies would be harvested out. Medicine no longer tries to fix broken parts; they immediately transplant. Need a new kidney? Just throw in a new one. Need a new arm because of an accident? They graft on a new one. Have epilepsy? Easy, remove the part of the brain that causes seizures and replace it with other healthy brain tissue. All the parts come from teens who have been "unwound". Once a child is 18, they are considered an adult and are no longer eligible for being unwound. Parents (or guardians) have to sign the unwind order and once signed, it cannot be revoked. Many kids don't even know it's going to happen until there's no escape.

But the book opens with Conner finding out that his parents are having him unwound. Sure he's been kind of a trouble maker and got into fights, but he doesn't believe it warrants having to give up his life as he knows it! He manages to escape and what ensues is a crazy journey with new friends trying to survive. Along the way, we meet another group of kids who are going to be unwound, but these kids are "tithes". They are brought up knowing from their earliest childhood that they are holy and special; that like the "firstlings of the flock" or Christ Himself, their purpose in life is to be unwound when they are 13 as an offering to God and to mankind. They believe they are doing this for a better cause. To further humanity and serve in a way so complete that cannot be done any other way.

I will warn you, there is a pretty gruesome scene that I thought I was going to be sick. I was horrified. It was MUCH worse than the Twilight vampires in Italy feasting on the poor tourists (that almost made me puke too). This practice of unwinding is so common place-and people think it's great. I mean, no shortage of blood in the blood banks, no waiting in line for an organ transplant. Supplies to sustain and improve life are available in copious amounts. But no one thinks about the kids who are unwound. They were troubled or trouble makers at worst, just average and not quite good enough at best (and without parents to say they were wanted).

Conner's first friend is a girl named Risa, who is being unwound simply because she lives in a State Home as a ward of the state and they need to reduce their teen population by 5%, so they pick and choose the least likely to have a super rewarding adulthood I guess. Risa has always been well behaved and scores above average at school. But she chose classical piano training and it is a competitive field. She's not quite the best, so she is chosen to be unwound. When Conner makes his infamous escape, so does she. They partner up for survival sake. Conner is a guy who acts on impulses. Risa thinks things through. She observes and then makes calculating moves. It's actually kind of cool to see how Risa teaches Conner to harness his emotions and think before he acts. It transforms him from delinquent to respected leader.

Another thing that is a little creepy is that at the beginning of some parts (the book is separated into Parts and then chapters), there are actual real life things that obviously were the inspiration for this book. Like the case from 2003 in Ukraine where BBC found that there were several mothers who gave birth to healthy babies but had the babies taken away by maternity staff and were gone-told they were dead. An investigation led to exhume around 30 of these little bodies and found them to be stripped, some dismembered and that it was possible evidence of harvesting stem cells from bone marrow. There is a link in the book the full BBC story. And a 2001 incident of someone trying to sell their soul on ebay. There is constant conversation about whether or not a person has a soul, and if one is not technically dead, where can the soul go? What about consciousness? And there is growing evidence that "parts come with their own personality". For instance, if you have a grafted hand, that hand has muscle memory to do things you've never done. In one minor character, he has a part of brain that sometimes shifts him to be more like the grafted brain portion than himself. He has memories that are not his.

There there are other things to think about, chicken and egg things, for instance, which statement is more true: "You can't change laws without first changing human nature." or "You can't change human nature without first changing the law." Which is more compelling? Which needs to change first? Can laws shift human nature? Or does human nature shift laws?

Another thing that got me thinking is that the age they picked for this 13-18, is the most challenging age to parent! We often joke about how we'd like to send our teenagers away during that time; but would anyone really want to get rid of a child forever? As I have a 10 year old getting more and more mouthy each day and more moody each year, I have come to the conclusion that NOTHING she does (or doesn't do) could push me to the limit of wanting her in my life.

In this society, they have decided the best way to deal with those who don't fit in, conform, or act out is to just get rid of them. Sure it's super easy, but is that really the best solution? When I teach, sure it's easier when certain disruptive kids happen to be home sick and I don't have the deal with it and a ton of learning happens. But this book drives home the point that ignoring or doing away with a problem doesn't truly fix anything. Or make anyone better. And that there are probably a rare few who are past rehabilitation. You can see how in a society that just doesn't want to deal with problems would pressure parents to just "unwind" their unruly kids rather than try to help them, that parents cave. Or they make the decision in haste or with emotion (like when we adults dole out unfair punishments of infinitely LESS consequence than unwinding!)-and of course it's irrevocable.

This book is a series....there are 4 books (the last one came out last year) plus a novella of what happened to one of the characters while he was absent from the narrative in the first book. At the end of book 1, a law is changed in favor of these kids, so it gives me enough hope that this society would get rid of such a horrid practice that I'm going to eventually read the other books.

I have to say the thing that impressed me the most in this writing is that all of the different narrators have a VERY strong individual voice. When I'm reading Conner's parts, I am in Conner's head, I hear Conner's voice. When it's Risa's turn, all that fills my head is HER and HER voice. Same for incidental characters that don't even have names or only 1-2 chapters. It's absolutely incredible! I've read split narratives before, but there's always something similar in the narrative, something that always makes me need to double check who is narrating the passage. This was not like that at ALL. I think this is probably the best specimen of split narrative that I've read in quite a while. I think the last one that had such stark individuality was "The Elegance of the Hedgehog", but the split narrative there was split between an early teen and a woman in her mid 50s, so I would think it easier to make them sound different and unique enough. This book is more impressive because you have 3 main teenagers, and others that are all incredibly unique. Conner and Lev sound like boys, Risa sounds like a girl. It's crazy good writing in that way!