Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Unwind" by Neal Shusterman

Summary: The United States entered its second civil war (dubbed the "Heartland Wars") over abortion, and in negotiating peace a new constitutional amendment was created: abortions were illegal, but from age 13-18 children who were unwanted by their parents could be "unwound"-- divided up into pieces to be distributed to people who needed or wanted the parts. Connor, who is unwanted by his parents, Risa, a ward of the state, and Lev, a "tithe" being unwound in the name of religion, are thrust together as they avoid being taken to the "harvest centers."

Musings: Although an interesting idea, the book rests on a rather absurd premise. The book tells the reader that unwinding was a compromise that "satisfied both the Pro-life and Pro-choice armies." Pro-choice advocates are looking for a woman's right to choose whether or not to give birth, and letting parents kill their children at age thirteen in no way fulfills that. I'm no advocate of pro-lifers, but while I'm sure they'd be happy abortion is now illegal, I can't imagine many would support the killing of teenagers. In fact, the so-called "compromise" would do nothing, in my mind, to stem abortion.

In order to account for the women who don't want a child when that child is born (and, gosh darn it, just can't wait around until the child is thirteen to kill it), Shusterman has created an equally moronic law: a woman can abandon her newborn baby on a doorstep. If she can leave without being caught, that family is obligated to raise the baby. If she's caught, she has to keep it. What problem does that solve?!

The idea is that most of the unwounds are trouble-making kids who "deserve" it or tithes, like Lev, who are doing it out of some perverted religious duty. Of course, like in so many books, the "bad" kids don't seem to be bad at all. We're told Connor fought a lot and that's why his parents choose to have him unwound, but throughout the book he is kind, caring, thoughtful, and demonstrates good leadership skills. We're told he gets in fights, but we almost never see him actually fight. Risa is sent to the harvest center because her talented piano playing just isn't exceptional enough to justify the cost of keeping her at the orphanage (annoyingly called StaHo--short for Ohio State Home).

So, from the beginning, the novel has to be taken with a large grain of I'll-accept-this-ridiculous-premise-anyway salt. Shusterman has some good prose, but his writing is also peppered with obvious observations and used dialogue. The three main protagonists are interesting enough to make you want to know their fate, although Connor, and especially Risa, seem rather flat. We're told Connor changes, but as we never see really see the "angry" side of him, his transition isn't very apparent.

Lev is the most interesting character in the book as he grapples with his upbringing as a tithe, his gradual rejection of his religious beliefs, and his turn toward terrorism in an effort to express his anger and loneliness.

The book improves some in the second section with a number of twists and turns about characters' motives and a suspenseful ending that makes the reader think, for a moment, that things might not turn out all right.

But, of course, this is a young adult novel, and things do end out well in the end. The "good" characters have happy endings and wheels are set in motion for the dismantling of the unwinding structure.

Throughout the book I was uncertain on its message regarding abortion. Shusterman does seem to blame both sides for the war, and several characters have a discussion on the ongoing debate of when life begins without any resolution. On the other hand, there seems to be a critique that a woman gives up a child in order to "dismiss her responsibility so easily" (55). At the end there is a rallying cry of "We have a right to our lives!" and "We have a right to choose what happens to our bodies!" (333). Said by kids formerly tagged as "unwounds," the slogans could just as easily apply to either side of the debate.

The book also brings up--and quickly drops--some bizarre commentary on other social issues. CyFi, a boy who Lev inexplicably picks up with half-way through the book, describes himself as "umber," casually explaining to the reader that a mixed-race artist coined the term to describe blacks; whites are now called "sienna." Somehow this has reduced racism. And what's the point? Similarly, CyFi has gay parents (called "yin families," we're told). Apparently the Heartland Wars also made gay marriage illegal (did the liberal side get anything positive from this war?!), but CyFi's dads got "mmarried." Yes, with two "m's." What does that mean? No idea; it's never mentioned again in the book.

Kudos for Shusterman addressing some topical social issues, but he doesn't seem to do so in a way that offers any real perspective.

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