Unwinding is the final solution agreed upon by both sides of a long, brutal struggle over the issue of abortion: The Heartland War was the culmination of years worth of animosity, religious and personal beliefs, and the obsession to be proved right. With the U.S. military stuck in the middle, charged with keeping either side from completely killing each other, the ludicrous idea of resolving pro-life and pro-choice concerns revolves around the process of Unwinding as dictated by the Bill of Life: “…human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen…between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child…” (Unwind, no page specified). Unwinds are anesthetized and surgically cut into reusable parts: eyes, limbs, organs, hair, or vocal chords; they are not put to sleep; they do not technically die.
To buy into Neal Shusterman’s fiction, readers have to believe a human can remain conscious as their body is cut to pieces and then those parts, which are used as sellable replacements, have “muscle memory” (p. 14)–an arm belonging to a musician, grafted onto a new body, can still play an instrument as well as the original owner; brain sections retain a noticeable consciousness that’s more intrusive than helpful. Readers also have to believe that the two sides, pro-life and pro-choice, would allow their own convictions to get so out of control, so righteous, and so angry, that they would accept the military’s terms and sentence millions of teenagers to a fate where they are dehumanized as persons, reduced to meat–all in the spirit of compromise wherein everyone loses.
The moment an Unwind order is signed by a child’s guardian or guardians, they become property of the government and are taken to Harvest Camps–a name that calls to memory crops and culling, seasonality and ripeness. Unwind has three main narrative points of view: Connor, 16; Risa, 15; and Lev, 13. They’re all scheduled for Unwinding, but it’s only Lev who has accepted his fate with open arms. Lev is a tithe, a child of a religious family, one of many given up in the name of God with parents who manipulate passages from the Bible “to justify unwinding…to see the face of God in the fragments” (p. 280). Perhaps it’s one way to look at the law, to ease the decision for a couple that attempts to do everything right by society and expectation. Whatever their reasoning, I find it personally disgraceful that a family so caught up in propriety doesn’t deviate from giving 10% of everything to the church for the sake of saving their own child’s life. As Lev navigates the world as a runway tithe, his staunch belief in his parents and in the noble purpose of tithing begins to unravel.
Before Lev sheds his white tithing clothes, he’s arrogant and judgmental–an attitude that does nothing to ingratiate himself to Connor and Risa, whom he sees as his kidnappers and not his saviors. The three become entangled when Connor’s plan to run and escape the Juvey-cops ready to take him to his Unwinding goes horribly wrong and causes a traffic accident. It ends with Risa stumbling out of a bus, Connor taking Lev as a hostage, and all three finding refuge in the woods to recuperate and formulate an alliance of survival.
As much as the premise of Unwind brings up difficult themes that often lead to heated discussion (at the very least), Shusterman tackles other issues as well. Along with Unwinding, the U.S. government of the future has come up with an odd solution to adoption. The Storking Initiative allows mothers to leave their newborn babies at anyone’s doorstep, mimicking the nursery belief of the initiative’s name. If the mother is caught, she must keep her baby; if not, an unsuspecting family is now the legal guardian. As you can imagine, forced adoption doesn’t work well at all. An unwanted child can quickly fuel the need to make him or her “somebody else’s problem” (p. 163), a phrase that echoes around Shusterman’s cavernous narrative to reverberate on multiple levels: Unwinds are many times in that position because parents or guardians literally don’t want to deal with them anymore; the Admiral’s Graveyard is a sanctuary for decommissioned planes when their service is up, when they need to be removed from the radar; Risa and Connor are frequently asked to value themselves on how best they fit other groups when they are unwanted by another.
There is also an interesting discussion about souls (whether or not they exist) and if Unwinds still have one after they’ve gone under the knife (one character, Diego, says that a soul is indivisible. Voldemort would disagree.). Themes of rebellion, independence of opinion, the right to life, and responsibility are only some of what Shusterman writes into his narrative. It’s a thought-provoking book that I’m glad is marketed to a YA audience. There are so many topics of discussion, in fact, that I felt those themes took over the book at the expense of a suspense I found, in places, a little wanting, and writing that “told” more than it “showed.” Some of the emotional connections and outbursts fell short of what they could have been when dialogue and actions leaned into the overly dramatic. Connor’s growth as a character happened largely behind the scenes. I missed seeing his gradual development into a less reactive teen and had to take it at face value when he is telling us he’s changed, but is still having fights between scenes. That was a little awkward for me. I also had a hard time believing Lev’s new “tough guy” attitude after his adventures with CyFi (a very interesting character) since his resolve hardened between when he left Cy behind and when he arrived at the Graveyard–time left outside the text. Another tough scene to tackle was the Admiral’s admission of his son’s fate as an example he set as a figure of authority. It’s one that I think wasn’t “resorted” to at all and instead, seemed to be in the top 3 “reasonable” options.
I’m still not sure if all of that negatively serves the novel since by the end, I was so caught up in what had happened, I didn’t care about any of what I’d been so critical over anymore. None of it mattered. What stayed with me were the discussions and every positive or negative consequence that each decision brought. It’s an interesting book, to say the least, and a compelling, if quick read. It also stands alone, which is kind of refreshing when lots of new YA books lately tend to be the first in a trilogy or series. I do recommend this book. There are a lot of interesting ideas that warrant a trip to your local bookstore or library to find a copy of Unwind.
Release Date: August 4, 2008
<Reviewed Format: UK trade paperback provided by Simon & Schuster UK