|Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands
4.5 / 5
"I built an igloo against the cold out of black plastic trash bags filled with wet leaves."
A heartbreaking, wildly inventive, and moving novel narrated by a teenage runaway, from the bestselling author ofMidwives and The Sandcastle Girls.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is the story of Emily Shepard, a homeless girl living in an igloo made of garbage bags in Burlington. Nearly a year ago, a power plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont had a meltdown, and both of Emily's parents were killed. Devastatingly, her father was in charge of the plant, and the meltdown may have been his fault—was he drunk when it happened? Thousands of people are forced to leave their homes in the Kingdom; rivers and forests are destroyed; and Emily feels certain that as the daughter of the most hated man in America, she is in danger. So instead of following the social workers and her classmates after the meltdown, Emily takes off on her own for Burlington, where she survives by stealing, sleeping on the floor of a drug dealer's house, inventing a new identity for herself, and befriending a young homeless kid named Cameron. But Emily can't outrun her past, can't escape her grief, can't hide forever-and so she comes up with the only plan that she can.
Despite my love for his other books, this might be my favorite Bohjalian book yet. I started reading it only a few days ago, and was worried I wouldn't finish it before its release date. But I ate it up! It was so engaging.
(I picked up this ARC when attending the Connecticut Library Association's annual conference back in April. Chris Bohjalian spoke in front of a packed room, and I was lucky enough to snag one of two remaining galleys.)
This book is the story of Emily, whose parents have supposedly caused a nuclear power plant's meltdown in her hometown. This means that not only is Emily suddenly orphaned, she is also left homeless, with nowhere to turn. On top of all this, and what might have been the most heart-wrenching part for me, Emily also worries that her dog has been abandoned, trapped in the family house, and is starving to death. Being a dog lover, this part especially hit home for me. However, as it is the story of a teenage girl from New England, it really was quite an easy story for me to relate to. Emily Shepard's life sounded much like my own, growing up. (Luckily, though, I did not have to deal with alcoholic parents!)
Emily is a very strong, independent character, which I loved. She is constantly uncertain about her future, but manages to take care of herself - and later, also a nine-year-old boy. I use the term "take care of" loosely, as Emily resorts to many unsavory acts in order to survive the cold Burlington, VT winter. But she has such a personality! And despite her insecurities, she really does have a great sense of herself and engages in some wonderful self-reflection throughout the book. She is very self-aware, especially for a sixteen year old.
Emily's idol is the poet Emily Dickinson, which I found a really interesting direction for the author to go, particularly since Dickinson is rather "dated" in the eyes of today's youth, I believe. But I like the way the main character was constantly comparing her life to the poet's, and in many ways trying to emulate her famous namesake. She went so far as to adopt the new name "Abby Bliss" when she needed to go incognito: this being the name of Dickinson's best friend. The whole setup worked really well. I wondered at times whether Bohjalian determined the name of his protagonist because of the poet, or whether he linked the poet up with his teenage hero only after she had already come to be.
I don't want to give away too much, so I won't talk at length about what actually happens in the story. The book really does a great job at looking both forwards and backwards in time: Emily/Abby explains that she has trouble staying on track and not straying from her linear timeline. I thought that was a great touch. Bohjalian definitely knows teen girls (although during his talk at the CLA, he mentioned how much he leaned on his own teenage daughter for help with voice and especially slang!), and I would equate his ease with the main character's voice to that of Wally Lamb. Both authors craft such real stories: you almost feel as if you know their characters personally.
I will probably be recommending this book highly for the next few months, to anyone who will listen! Haha. I would caution that it's maybe a little bit adult, as there is mention of drugs, prostitution, and self-mutilation, but a teenager with a good head on his or her shoulders should be fine with the content; there is very little that is explicit, as far as I can recall.
Definitely check out this innovative & imaginative story - like me, you may spend half the time wondering what you would do if such a nightmare scenario happened in your hometown!
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