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Unwind by Neal Shusterman, 352 pp, RL: TEEN


Unwind is the first book in the Unwind Dystology by Neal ShustermanUnwind was published in 2007, fourteen years after the thought provoking, conversation starting Newbery winner, The Giver and one year before the book that made "dystopian" a household word, The Hunger Games. I was a bookseller when The Hunger Games was published and my fellow booksellers and I avidly passed around the advance reader copy we got then struggled to explain the book - and convey how amazing it was despite the disturbing plot - to customers once it was released. In terms of thought provoking and disturbing plots, Unwind has The Giver and The Hunger Games beat. Once the three main characters of the book are on the run together, Unwind unfolds at a fast pace with Shusterman revealing more and more horrifically logical elements of the dystopian world he has masterfully created.

In The Giver, a purportedly utopian community relinquishes literature, music, art and the ability to see color while also committing infanticide and euthanizing the elderly to maintain order. In The Hunger Games, the government stages an annual, televised event where twenty-four boys and girls fight to the death - both for entertainment and as a reminder to the citizens of Panem to tow the line. Unwind is set sometime in a future where iPods are considered antiques and transplants (anything from eyes to arms to lobes of the brain) have become the standard medical response to all illness. Far from a utopia, this is a society living with compromises brought about by The Second Civil War, also known as the Heartland War, fought by the Life Army and the Choice Brigade. Ending this war has brought about changes in the laws of United States and hideous compromises that citizens seem to be accepting of. Abortion has been outlawed, but "retroactive abortion" becomes the legal. In a country where all pregnancies are carried to term, unwanted newborns become wards of the state or they can be "storked," which entails a new parent leaving his/her infant on the doorstep of a house, ringing the doorbell and fleeing. If the abandoning parent does not get caught, the baby becomes the "storked" family's responsibility. As a response, "retroactive abortion" has been instituted. "Retroactive abortion" allows parents to opt out of parenthood by having a child with discipline or health issues between the ages of 13 - 18, "unwound," a practice which feeds and fuels the transplant industry, making their "unwinding" a seemingly worthwhile act.  

The most amazing and compelling aspect of Unwind is the evenhanded way that Shusterman writes his world - rather than pick sides, he presents all sides. And all sides (there are more than two...) seem to be equally heinous in their actions and there are many, many blind eyes turned. As in The Giver, language allows people to feel more comfortable about what they are doing and condoning. Unwinds do not die, but live on in a "divided state." In fact, the process of being unwound is treated with such secrecy that many of the children actually believe that they will not die during the process. Shusterman even includes a chilling chapter in which a character is unwound, the reader experiencing every moment of the process, including the babble of the nurses and doctors, from the unwind's perspective. However, there are also, possibly apocryphal stories, of the psychological toll the decision to unwind can have on parents in the form of the story of "Humphrey Dunfee." Supposedly, after deciding to have their son unwound many years ago, the  Dunfees went mad with grief and regret, traveling the world to find the recipients of transplants from their son so, like Humpty Dumpty, they could put him back together again...

The three main characters, Connor, Risa and Lev, are each being unwound for different reasons. Sixteen-year-old Connor has impulse control issues and stumbles across his unwind papers along with plane tickets for the family vacation - one that he realizes he will not be going on. Risa, also sixteen and raised in a State Home, is being unwound because of funding cuts, chosen for the procedure because her classical piano playing skills were not as good enough. Along the way, they meet other runaway Unwinds and learn the sad and sometimes frivolous or avaricious reasons for  the decision to retroactively abort. The most interesting character in the book and the one who undergoes the most profound changes, is Lev. In this new world, ultra-religious families who tithe 10% of their income to the church also believe in tithing 10% of all their worldly possessions, including children. Blond haired, blue eyed Lev is a tithe, the 10th child, and has been raised to believe that as a tithe his life has special purpose and meaning and to be proud of this designation, which requires him to wear white. On his thirteenth birthday, a "tithing party," much like a Bar Mitzvah, sends him off to a special camp where tithes continue their religious studies before being unwound, many of them believing that they pass on the ability to perform miracles in the parts of them used for transplants. 

Over the course of the novel, as they run from their fates, Connor, Risa Lev and come together and fall apart in spectacular events that continually reveal the incredible and insidious ways in which society adapts to, benefits from and declines from the new laws. Shusterman's ideas are sometimes stronger than his writing, nevertheless, Unwind is a book that will linger long in my thoughts, much like The Giver has.

If you don't mind a tiny spoiler, scroll to the bottom for information on a novella Shusterman publised in eBook form only that expands on Lev's story in Unwind.



Other books in the Unwind Dystology:




Book 4: UnDivided, due out October 2014


UnStrung - an eBook novella


One incredible aspect of Unwind that I couldn't fit into my review are the "clappers," young terrorists who fill their bloodstreams with undetectable explosives and detonate themselves at key moments in key places. Toward the end of Unwind, Lev falls in with a terrorist group. UnStrung is about his time there.

Source: Purchased Audio Book

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