Wednesday, December 17, 2014
by Neal Shusterman
Simon and Schuster 2007
335 pages YA
My 14-year-old granddaughters read this book for a class at school and insisted that I read it and write about it for my blog. I love it when that happens!
I then told my son about the book and remarked that the twins had read it in class. He suggested that dystopian novels are a great way to teach civics and social issues without the students knowing there is an ulterior motive to the reading. I hadn't looked at it that way, but he is definitely right. Unwind teaches a civics lesson about one of the great political divide the country finds itself in—abortion and abortion rights.
"Unwinding" is the political solution to the cause of a great civil war over abortion—fought not with words but with an actual war. At the end of the war, the solution was two-fold. First, no abortion. Second, unwanted babies could be left on doorsteps, and unwanted teenagers could be sent to a camp where their organs would be harvested. In unwinding, the teenagers are divided and their parts used to prolong life in the general population. Children are told that they will live on in a "divided state." While there is not much empathy in the book, Schusterman decries the ultimate sacrifice that can come from a political compromise.
Three young teenagers are sent to an unwinding camp to be divided: Conner is unruly and his parents don't want to cope with him anymore. Risa has been raised in an orphanage, and she is sent to be unwound to reduce orphanage costs. Lev, on the other hand, was conceived to be unwound; he is the family's "tribute." After Conner stages a dramatic escape on the way to the unwinding camp, he drags along Risa and Lev, and they embark on a journey to keep themselves alive until they turn 18 and can't be unwound. They find themselves in a vast underground movement to keep unwinds alive, very similar to the Underground in the US Civil War era.
Unwind is one of many dystopian series of novels that are capturing the interest of young adult readers. Although I have read only a few, Unwind seems to me to be the most overtly political. I suppose that is why it is being taught in the Oak Park Illinois schools. And, from the number of student projects on the Internet, it is used in middle schools and high schools across the country. Not surprisingly, it has caused a lot of negative book reviews from conservative groups that object to the books on several levels. Foremost among these objections is the scene in which an unwind is actually dismembered.
Unwind is philosophical by nature and political by intent. There is nothing subtle about the message. "You can't change the laws without first changing human nature. You can't change human nature without first changing the law." It made me want to look back at other dystopian novels that I have read and look closer at the political messages that are being taught through them. Although I agree with the message of Unwind, and I appreciate my granddaughter's enthusiasm for it, I wonder what philosophical and political messages students are being taught that are more subtle and less liberal in tone.
Unwind is the first book in a four part series that is in development as a movie. I came across a trailer created by high school students as a class project. You can find it here.
A good review in the Guardian.