What an awesome book! This year has been a year of surprises in the YA genre for me. It's nice to see that kids have some competent and engaging stories to really dig into and learn to love the art of story-telling and reading.
While the premise of Unwind
is kind of hard to swallow, Shusterman does a pretty phenomenal job creating engaging characters and the writing is done well enough that it doesn't distract the reader with cheesy lines or awkward dialogue to break the suspension of disbelief. In the not-too-distant future, America undergoes a second civil war, this time known as the Heartland War. What is the precursor of said war? Abortion. Yeah, I know - not likely. But apparently the Right-to-Lifers and the Freedom-of-Choicers decide to end the debate once and for all in a slugfest. The resolution is a compromise: the Bill of Life. Both sides agree that life begins at conception and abortion is to be outlawed, but as a concession to people who believe in freedom of choice, if parents feel that their child hasn't grown on them, or that the child is troublesome, they can have him or her unwound between the ages of thirteen and eighteen - harvesting all of their body parts for the good of humanity in an era when just about anything can be successfully transplanted. Yeah, I know, even the compromise is unrealistic, there's no way people who devoutly believe in the sanctity of life would condone the unwinding of a fully sentient and grown human being, but bear with us for a moment and leave that aside.
Connor, Lev, and Risa are all set to be unwound, for different reasons. Their paths cross and Shusterman propels them on an adventure for survival that involves cloak and dagger secret societies, militaristic camps and Fugitive-esque escapes from the law that are so gripping that you forget that the whole premise is flimsy. There are scenes that really pull you into the horror and hopelessness that these teens face in this dark world and some of the descriptions of the unwinding process are some of the creepiest and most horrifying I've read. Dystopian lit seems all the rage with teens today and this novel encapsulates all the reasons why it may seem so appealing. Plainly evident is the us-versus-them dichotomy of adults and children with authority figures representing the order of society embedded in selfish adults who think only of themselves rather than the well-being of their children, who in many respects seem more mature and rational than their parentage. It certainly helps young people examine and enunciate the frustrations they may feel and provide them with an imaginative outlet to project their worst fears and ways to deal with them. I whole-heartedly approve. Shusterman also provides a nice balance between male and respectable and capable female protagonists, which I also applaud. There's a surprising amount of depth and growth for all characters involved, most strikingly in Lev that offers a degree of complexity and sophistication much beyond what is typical of the genre, which I also think is constructive for developing readers in preparation for more dense works. On top of that, there are excellent philosophical themes that guide younger people through the nuances of the Choice/Life debate that are sophisticated yet plainly straightforward without any value judgments placed on either side. There are also sub-plots of terrorism and presentations of multiple alternatives for social change that are also highly sophisticated and surprisingly well-thought out.
This is definitely going to the top of my to-recommend list for students looking for good books to read. It's a promising start to a trilogy slated to be wrapped up next year. If you're an English teacher, check it out! This book would be a pretty good one to start off a campus book club with so you can hook readers before trying anything more complex and dense.