"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
November 6, 2012
Unwind: Power from the Gray Areas
by Erin Cowles

When I realized this column would post on U.S. election day, I couldn't resist the urge to review Neil Shusterman's Unwind, a dystopia based on a U.S. policy issue that is still heated (as I am reminded by the constant barrage of mailers I get in my swing state).

To end the brutal and long second civil war between between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies, a horrible compromise has been reached. Abortion is no longer legal, but between the ages of 13 and 18, parents and guardians can chose to have their child “unwound” — having every part of their body donated to another person (so they still technically exist).

Unwind follows three teens that are slated for unwinding as they try to escape their fate. Connor's parents decide to unwind him because they couldn't manage his rebelliousness; Risa is a ward of the state that it couldn't afford to keep alive; and Lev is a child from a religious family who raised him as a “tithe,” or an unwind human sacrifice of sorts.

Through their journey, the teens are faced with the selfishness, apathy, and brutality that the compromise creates in their society. But they also encounter courage and integrity, especially when the stakes are high.

I think this novel's greatest strength is the way it exists in gray areas. It makes the reader ask ethically complicated questions about medical research, abortion, organ donation, the value of life, and the political process, but Shusterman does not take an obvious stand on the issues. As far as I can tell, his stand is that these complicated issues should be handled thoughtfully. He allows readers to wrestle with the issues themselves, and to come to terms with the costs and benefits of their choices. I like that he respects his readers enough to give them that freedom.

Lev was my favorite character. Some have found his many transformations throughout the novel too dramatic to be believable, but I have watched friends experience that untethered feeling that comes when they lose a belief or person that they based their life around, and Lev's struggles rang true to me. I loved his journey through doubt and anger, and his return to goodness and purpose.

After a five year hiatus, Shusterman recently returned to Unwind's world with a sequel titled UnWholly, which I haven't been able to get my hands on yet. Expect a review when I do, as it has been well-received. Following the trend in YA literature these days, this series will become a trilogy.

Read this book if...

  • The polarized name-calling of this election is getting to you, and you want a reminder of the complexity of the issues we face.
  • The words “dystopia burnout” mean nothing to you — the current market saturation means you're never lacking a thought-provoking world in which to immerse yourself.
  • You love books where the courage and integrity of minor characters change things in important ways for the major characters.

Target audience: Ages 14 and up.


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About Erin Cowles

Erin Cowles is a mother of two, living in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Before motherhood, she used her masters in library and information science in a law firm library. Now she uses it to find good books for her family at her local public library. She teaches part time for a SAT prep company, where she enjoys the challenge of making rather dull subject matter interesting and making college a reality for her students. During women's history month, she profiles Mormon women that inspire her at ldswomenshistory.blogspot.com.

Erin currently serves as a counselor in her ward's primary presidency.

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