Published by Doubleday
Publication date: July 8th 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult
Sweet sixteen—a time of so many changes. Learning to drive, first dates, preparing for college, and, if you’re Emily Shepard, a nuclear reactor meltdown near your tiny town in Vermont, your parents disappearing, and being evacuated from your school with only the clothes on your back. This is sixteen as seen by Chris Bohjalian in his new novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.
When Emily and her classmates are dropped off at a college deemed a safe distance from what appears to be a massive nuclear disaster, her mind is already racing with possibilities and as her friends start clicking away on their phones she knows it is only a matter of minutes before what she fears most will be on their faces. Her father is the chief engineer at the plant and her mother is the head of public relations. The only thing they may not know is her father has a drinking problem but that will come out at some point. As she frantically tries to call both her parents with no results the worry everyone else feels turns to terror for her. If they are dead, then people, angry important people, are going to be looking for answers and for her. She slips away and embarks on a lonely journey to survive and, despite the insanity of this thought, to get home.
Bohjalian has always been able to capture time and place in his novels but it is his ability to mind meld with his protagonists that makes his work resonate. Emily is not some super hero, star student/athlete, perfect teen. She is bright, but with a lot of attitude. As she freely admits judgment and impulse control are not her strongest suits. Close Your Eyes is written from her point of view and in doing so Bohjalian is able to contrast the normal workings of the teen mind against the very adult situation in which Emily finds herself. A broader view of the accident and the resulting fallout would not be nearly as dramatic as seeing it from inside Emily’s head. As she runs to safety in another Vermont town she does so completely on her own. No one knows who she is or where she is. At one point, she befriends a nine-year-old boy, Cameron, when she sees he has been abused by his foster family. Despite being hardly able to take care of herself she appoints herself as his guardian and his wellbeing becomes a focus greater than her desire to get home.
Close Your Eyes is not a treatise on the evils of nuclear power or any of the larger themes that place Emily in her situation. It is about something just as hard to see: the lack of any kind of support system for young people without homes, with no hope of having their basic needs being met. Bohjalian sears us with the reality of life on the street in what Emily has to do to survive. This is a girl who had a home, a safe place to sleep and eat, with parents who loved her and a dog she loved. Despite her tough attitude she is still innocent in many ways. All she wants is to get home, even if home has been deemed off limits to all humans and is under military control. Without a misstep, Bohjalian blends current events with the esoteric flotsam in a teenager’s mind, and in so doing brings us into Emily’s world. We too wonder what to do next and how this will all turn out.
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