Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
January 2008

Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster, Copyright © 2007
335 Pages, $16.99 Hardcover
Age Group: 12 up
(out of five) -- I loved it!

Here's an unusual but timely premise. A war between the pro-life and pro-choice factions on earth today. It's not hard to image these two different groups going to battle over the rights of the unborn. After all, abortion clinics have been bombed and burned and doctors who perform abortions have been shot. And in this election year, what better time to release a book based on a major political platform. The war fueled by these opposing groups was called the Heartland War.

The signing of the Bill of Life ended the war. "The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively "abort" a child . . . on the condition that the child's life doesn't "technically" end. The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called "unwinding." (p. xi)

Unwinding is a horrible concept. It is a process whereby a child's every organ is surgically removed. Throughout the surgery, right up to removal of the various lobes of the brain, the child is kept conscious. This is because of a pseudo religious belief that the child never really dies. He lives through the donation of his/her limbs and organs to others. In order to perpetuate this belief, the child is kept alive until the last possible second and lives on through the life of his organs. Can anything else be more horrible?

This is the major propaganda that fuels the Bill of Life and children are taught from birth that unwinding in God's way of dealing with a host of unclear problems one of which is identified as overpopulation. Others are more nebulous. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a child can be unwound for the most trivial of reasons. All the parents must do is agree.

Connor, Risa, and Lev are all 13-year-olds about to be unwound. I had no trouble believing that parents could have one or more of their children unwound in this dystopian society. The practice has almost become a religion. In fact at birth, a couple can designate that child to be a "tithe." Lev is a tithe and is raised differently than Conner and Risa because of his special calling. Tithes are taught to believe they are special and better than other unwinds.

Almost anything can get you unwound. Children who are smart, superior athletes or children with some other special talent rarely get unwound. However being talented doesn't always save you. Risa has studied classical piano all her short life and actually has great aptitude and talent. Yet, her parents chose to have her unwound anyway. There is no predicting the who and why of unwinding.

It's the average child who stands the greatest chance of being unwound. Children whom parents and experts don't believe will make a significant contribution to society or have some fatal flaw. This flaw can be anything from poor grades in school to the inability to dribble a basketball. I picked the latter, dribbling a basketball, because that is a skill I've never been able to master. I would certainly have been unwound. My wife, on the other hand, knows how to build a fire without matches and other outdoor survival skills. She can also sew clothing without a pattern. I doubt she would have been unwound.

Connor is the first character we meet. His parents sign the unwind papers and he is picked up by the Harvest Camp guards. Connor shakes free of the guards and runs. He runs throughout most of the book. He is the kind of person who often acts before thinking. This behavior serves him well in getting away and leads him to rescue a girl name Risa, the tithe Lev and an infant.

In their run, this team finds their way to a safe heaven called the Graveyard. The Graveyard actually exists in Arizona much as described in the book. In fact, it's little more than an airplane junk yard (my brother flew some 747s there when they were retired). The Graveyard is run by a general from the Heartland war that is trying to make up the evil he did during the war. He is truly repentant and uses planes that are going to be junked to transport runaway unwinds from safe houses to the Graveyard. It a veritable underground railroad.

Much happens at the Graveyard that fuels the rest of the story. The General's system begins to be taken apart from the inside out. His special guards are killed and slowly discipline erodes. Needless to say, the graveyard is invaded and children are sent to a Harvest Camp. Connor and Risa end up at the same camp and later Lev joins them. Here children are interviewed to see if they have any special talents worth an early unwind. At the same time all children live almost a boot camp existence as they are pushed to be in the best physical shape. All the better to donate you, my dear.

From here the story becomes more complex and moving. I had a real emotional reaction to the chapter that describes unwinding and a deep revulsion to the technique. It didn't matter that the character was one I'd come to despise for his role in the story.

The feeling of revulsion has not left me as of this writing. This story is so powerful that perhaps I'll never be able to forget unwinding. Also repulsive were the attitudes of the adults around these children. They see themselves in a God-like way as they go about their jobs doing God's will. The staff acts as if the tasks they performed were routine, commonplace and respectable.

The plot simmers and comes to a boil at Happy Jack Harvest Camp. Events unroll that lead to a revolt the day Connor is being taken in to be unwound. From what happens that day causes our nation to spin out of control. When the dust settles, people are ready to be reasonable and positive changes begin to take place in our society. Perhaps someday unwinding will be universally banned.

This is a powerful, moving novel. It is the story of a world split by fanatics and then taped back together by the Bill of Life. Like scotch tape, which turns yellow and then brown, the tenuous threads holding the nation frayed until they broke. Not even duct tape could have held this society together much longer.

I really enjoyed this book and I refuse to give away any more of the story. It is a page-turner. Entertaining, thought provoking and smooth to read. There are twists and turns in the plot enough to keep your nose buried deep within the pages. There are a couple of sub plots that keep you thinking and the unexpected turn of events at the end of the book is gratifying if not as complete as one would hope. Read this book. Neal Shusterman has outdone himself and that's saying a lot.

Dream-Weaver by Louise Lawrence
Clarion Books, Copyright © 1996
231 Pages, $6.95 Paperback
Age Group: 12 up
(out of five) -- I didn't like it.

Dream-Weaver takes place on the planet Arbroth and on a huge sleeper ship called the Exodus. Eth is a 17-year-old dream-weaver (actually she's a couple years younger when the book starts but matures as the sleeper ship gets closer). Dream-Weavers are trained to influence the dreams of others. By directing a person's dreams, the weaver can help them to make choices that are best for everyone or stop hating someone by healing the conflict. Dream-Weavers are public servants. They must study for years to become part of the guild and begin their work.

The other prime character is a 17-year-old boy named Troy. He is part of the crew of the Exodus and the only advocate for Eth's planet. Eth is unique in that she can leave her body and go great distances as opposed to only being able to travel around the village where she works as the Dream-Weaver. Eth's first out of body experience puts her into Troy's room on the Exodus. They become friends. He is stricken with her dark hair, skin and orange colored eyes.

According to the American Library Association (ALA) booklist, Dream-Weaver deals with imperialism, exploitation, psychic manipulation and censorship for the public good. I will try to review the book for each of these topics. Using Dream-Weavers to keep the peace is psychic manipulation. In almost any context this would seem wrong but here everyone knows what a Dream-Weaver's job is and they welcome the help. Censorship for the public good occurs because a select few know that technology still exists on the planet, how to use it and its specific purpose. I imagine lots of people were angry when they learned of existing technology. Or perhaps this was the select group's way of showing how important it is so that they could develop it again. Who knows except to say that these two themes went undeveloped.

Imperialism is the forceful extension of a nation's authority by territorial conquest establishing economic and political domination of other nations (Wikipedia). There are 3000 colonists on the Exodus and most have plans for the future that do not include the native peoples. One family's goal is to establish a one million acre estate. One wonders how many native villages will be displaced as this economic empire is established. Others feel similar in respect to the wealth they will build. One cannot help but think of the conflict between Native American peoples and white settlers that started with the French.

One cannot have true imperialism without exploitation of the people. In the empire building planned above, the native people will be expected to share knowledge of where precious gems and substances (oil) are, and to provide cheap labor such as did the slaves of America or its Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 17th century.

The closer the Exodus comes the worse it looks for Eth's people. Only a skeleton crew on the Exodus actually wants to turn the Exodus toward another promising planet. Their pleas for the people of Arbroth are most loudly expressed by young Troy. And his youth is his biggest problem. Other crew and people just shove him out of the way and go on with their empire building plans. Troy never gives up and continues to question the motivation of the 3000 sleepers. By the time the Exodus makes planet fall, all 3000 entrepreneurs are awake and screaming for the ship to land.

In the mean time, as the Exodus glides towards Arbroth, Eth goes through her Dream-Weaver training. She makes several more out-of-body trips to the Exodus and visits with Troy. Her visits with Troy are what change him from an imperialist to a human ecologist.

Of course the planet is saved in the end and in a surprising way through a technology the Arbroths have that the reader does not expect. Why didn't I like the book? In all fairness, many people might like the book, but not I. There was no real action that took place to save the planet except for nightmares woven buy hordes of dream-weavers who infested the Exodus each night. A bad dream is a just a dream to a good imperialist.

Most of the book is about Eth and her struggles to find herself and become a full-fledged dream-weaver. She is much of a renegade and doesn't like to follow custom. Her growing up to become a dream-weaver is a coming of age story but it's rather boring. She is a spoiled child and a troublemaker who thinks she is above the rules of the Guild Academy. It is true that her training of other students to travel far like she does when out-of-body helps to save Arbroth.

In the end, I would like to have seen less of Eth's boring life and more of the sleepers on the Exodus. They are pseudo bad people who pose a threat that never germinates. Yes the sleeper's get up and mill around and yell about the getting to Arbroth and have temper tantrums. It would have been refreshing to have developed one or two of those people as truly evil as we are told they are. Witnessing their diabolical plans for Eth's planet would have made the threat the Exodus poses seem more real.

The Boy Who Couldn't Die by William Sleator
Amulet Books, Copyright © 2005
161 Pages, $6.95 Paperback
Age Group: 12 up
(out of five) -- I really liked it!

Sixteen-year-old Ken is in a world of hurt for most of this book. It all started with the death of his best friend Roger, disfigured so badly from a horrific accident the coffin was kept closed during the funeral. Ken vowed that he would never allow something like this to happen to him. Then he sees an advertisement in the paper about becoming invulnerable. It was just want Ken wanted to live his life and never be in danger like Roger. So he made an appointment and gave up his soul for fifty buckaroos. Sounded like a good deal at the time.

Ken's early experiences with invulnerability were exciting for him. He got to stand up to the school bully, date the hottest chick and perform a host of feats. Standing up to Katrina's boyfriend was just the beginning. He enjoyed sticking his hand in the Bunsen burners in chemistry and other such things.

Perhaps it should be explained that Ken's invulnerably was a kind of passive resistance. It's not so much what he did to anyone but how well they were at punching brick walls. Ken needed only stand there and the bully would break his hand on him. No one could do anything but hurt him or herself. Ken didn't do a lot of dumb stuff, but he did swim with sharks and come out of the water the victor.

Ken is feeling pretty good about his decision until the side effects begin to happen. He loses his taste, hunger and feelings. But that's not the worst of it. Ken begins to have terrible dreams and in these dreams he performs terrible acts. What appear to be nightmares are reality. The woman, who only charged $50 to make Ken invulnerable, is now using him to do her will. Ken is little more than a Zombie. Ken resolves to get his soul back.

Every dream that Ken has reveals a little about where his soul is hidden. The author never explains how this is so or how it works. Nevertheless, with the help of a girl he meets in the Caribbean, they put together the puzzle. Ken's soul is deep in Alaska's frozen world. The two of them embark on a quest to retrieve Ken's heart and return it to him.

From here on the story is a grand adventure with lots of interesting plot twists and turns. Friends are Zombies, Zombies are everywhere and they all seem determined to kill Ken's friend Sabine. Lucky she knows a great deal about voo doo magic or they would have had her for sure. A remarkable thing happens. In Ken's dreams he is able to fight his evil half and not kill Sabine. She remains his true friend even though he comes for her each night.

I recommend William Sleator books. The Boy Who Couldn't Die makes it into my top three Sleator favorites, the other two being The Last Universe and Singularity. This is a fast-paced read with something new on every page. Sleator has the gift of being able to say in three sentences what others need a page for. Enjoy this book.

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