Monday, September 29, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

Emily Shepherd is a normal high-schooler--she loves poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson (did you know that much of the work of Dickinson can be sung to the theme of Gilligan's Island?); her teachers chide her for underachieving; she occasionally gets into a modest amount of trouble; she worries about her parents' drinking. Then Reactor One at the Cape Abenaki Nuclear Power Plant in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom melts down; not only are her parents killed, but she soon realizes that her father, an engineer at the plant, is being blamed for the disaster. Afraid that the blame will extend to her, she takes off from the school where she and her classmates have been transported.

Over the next nine months, she lives the hard life of the streets. She stays for a time at a shelter, but when one of the other residents figures out who she is, she takes off. Next she lands at the apartment of an Iraq War vet who sells drugs and runs Emily and other girls as prostitutes; from Andrea, another girl in the apartment, she learns the fine art of cutting herself. When Andrea heads for Boston, Emily leaves the apartment and sleeps essentially on the street. Then she meets nine-year-old Cameron, on the run from an abusive foster family, and decides to take him under her wing. The two spend the Vermont winter in the library by day and in an igloo made of garbage bags by night. The connection with Cameron gives Emily a new human connection to keep her from suicide, but things are hardly rosy for the two.

Bohjalian has always had a gift for creating multidimensional and believable female characters, and Emily Shepherd is all of that and more. She is a combination of self-awareness and teenage insecurity. She recognizes that she is making bad decisions, but she cannot stop herself from making them. Given the opportunity to care for Cameron, she rises to meet the challenge, though the best mothering of a 15-year-old living on the street is certainly flawed. While some of Emily's responses seem extreme, the circumstances in which she finds herself are also extreme.

The title Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is taken from a direction given to children in Newtown, Connecticut, when they had to walk through the halls of their school past the bodies of their dead classmates. Emily recognizes that the words can be inspirational or dreadful, depending on the context--for her, they carry special weight because, once Cameron is lost to her, she believes she has no one's hand to hold. That pain makes the book ineffably sad, yet it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit. I didn't care for the past couple Bohjalian books I read (or tried to read), but I definitely recommend Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.

Favorite passages:
But for most of the world--for most of Vermont--the Cape Abenaki meltdown is just another bit of old news. Tsunamis. School shootings. Syria. We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we're either very resilient or super callous. I don't know which.

The poetry of a nuclear disaster is weirdly beautiful. There is alliteration: rads and roentgens and rems. To a scientist, those are just units of measurement. To a poet? Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

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