The City of Ember
by Jeanne DuPrau
Recommended Age: 12+
For over 200 years, the citizens of Ember have been taught that they were a lone light in a dark world. Surrounded by Unknown Regions, fed by underground storehouses and a handful of greenhouses, their lives are regulated by the electric lights that turn on every morning and off every night. Their sky is featureless, their nights pitch black. They have forgotten the purpose for which the city was built, forgotten what the world was like before; and of greatest concern, they have lost the instructions for leaving Ember when the time comes.
But it is each day clearer that they must leave their city sometime. The generator is failing. Blackouts grow longer and more frequent. Supplies are running out. No one remembers how to fix the things that no longer work. Social tensions are rising. Their way of life must soon come to an end, one way or another. But no one knows how to get out of Ember – or even if there is anything outside Ember!
Doon and Lina are classmates in the highest grade at Ember’s school. As their education ends, each student is given a work assignment. Doon draws the job Lina wants: to be a messenger, to run all over the city carrying messages to all kinds of people. Lina draws the job Doon wants: to be a pipeworker, down in the tunnels beneath the city, where he might be able to do something about their growing power crisis. Impulsively, the two children trade work assignments – and thereby hangs the fate of their entire city.
This is the first novel by a California-based author who, to judge by her photo inside the back cover and her claim to keep “a big garden and a small dog,” clearly spends a lot more time in the sun than the characters in this book. It is a magnificent achievement for a first-time novelist – a wonderful book on any terms. Filled with puzzles, surprises, danger, and tension, it also packs in a lot of hopefulness, compassion for its characters, and a wistful (if not ominous) hint about a possible future for our world. Perfectly paced, its ending left me eager to plunge into the sequel: The People of Sparks.
UPDATE: I was thrilled to learn that a movie is being made out of this book. Expect it to appear around the second week of October. Shown at left are the actors playing Doon and Lina: Harry Treadaway and Saoirse Ronan, the latter currently nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Atonement. Also appearing in the movie are Martin Landau, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste of TV's Without a Trace.
The People of Sparks
by Jeanne DuPrau
Recommended Age: 12+
This book is a sequel to The City of Ember. At the end of the previous book, 12-year-old Doon and Lina led over 400 people out of their failing city, only to discover that they had been living underground! Emerging into a strange world of blue skies, plants that grow wild, and animals they have never seen before, the people of Ember follow the nearest road until they reach the small village of Sparks.
The people of Sparks are, at first, unsure what to make of these strange “cave people.” In spite of their mutual distrust, and the fact that each group considers the other to be backward (for different reasons), the villagers agree to help the Emberites adjust to surface life. They give them a place to stay, food out of their stores, and work to do, but on the understanding that it is only for six months; the town leaders worry that, if they help the Emberites much more, it will bring hardship on their village just as they were starting to prosper.
The Emberites have a lot to learn. They have missed over 200 years of history. They do not understand anything about the wars and plagues that nearly wiped out the human race while they were safely tucked in their underground city. Nor do they understand why the people of Sparks resent them, under-feed them, over-work them, and automatically suspect them of doing things they did not do. Tension between the two groups escalates toward open war.
Lina and Doon, meanwhile, follow separate paths to the same conclusion: the people of Ember cannot survive if they are forced to leave Sparks; but once the two groups go to war, they will never be able to live together. Something has to be done to stop the “descending spiral of destruction.” Someone must do something hard – something courageous – something good – to break the cycle of hatred and retaliation. If no one bigger steps forward to do it, can a couple of children make a difference?
This book is a powerful parable about conflict and violence: its cause, its cost, and its alternatives. Full of tension and tenderness, a searching for home and hope, it allows the reader to understand and even sympathize with the fear and anger that can lead to violence. And it at least tries to teach us to look for an opening to do good – even though it can be the hardest thing in the world to do. Such a beautiful, exciting, fascinating book deserves to be on anybody’s short list of post-Deathly Hallows reading goals. I can hardly wait to read the next book in this series, titled The Prophet of Yonwood.
The Prophet of Yonwood
by Jeanne DuPrau
Recommended Age: 12+
This “Third Book of Ember” is actually a prequel to The City of Ember and The People of Sparks. It reaches back before the cataclysm that nearly wiped out mankind and led to the founding of the underground city of Ember – back to a time like ours, when a showdown between a fanatical enemy and a heavily-armed U.S. government leads many to fear for the world’s future.
In this tense atmosphere, 11-year-old Nickie and her aunt come to the small town of Yonwood, North Carolina, to settle the estate of Nickie’s late great-grandfather. Aunt Crystal wants to sell the big old house called Greenhaven and everything in it, and split the cash with Nickie’s mother. Nickie has other plans: 1. Keep Greenhaven (so she and her parents can live there), 2. Fall in love (so she knows what it feels like), and 3. Do something to help the world.
She doesn’t seem to have much luck with the first two items. Aunt Crystal spends more and more time with the realtor who is helping them sell Greenhaven. The only prospective boyfriends are a stuck-up prig named Martin and a nicer boy named Grover who, unfortunately, is crazy about snakes. As for doing something good, Nickie is encouraged (at first) by the efforts of a lady named Brenda Beeson, who has gathered a huge local following by interpreting the visions of a local prophet – a woman named Althea Tower, who has been stricken by a mindblowing vision of fire and destruction.
Mrs. Beeson takes care of the prophet, listening to her mutterings and trying to understand what they mean. Based on such phrases as “no singing,” Mrs. Beeson tries to lead a crusade of goodness to push back the evil in the world and, perhaps, save it from utter annihilation. She and her followers patrol the neighborhood, identifying people who are not living up to their standards of goodness, and punishing those who refuse to be corrected. One of those who are punished is Grover, because he refuses to get rid of his snakes. Poor Nickie is so confused about what is good and what is bad, who is right and who is wrong. She doesn’t know how to help the world. But when the prophet’s latest revelation convinces Mrs. Beeson that everyone has to get rid of their dogs – including Nickie’s beloved puppy Otis – on the rationale that we should not divide our love of God with love of man’s best friend – things suddenly become clear. Frantic, heartbroken, Nickie loses her head and does the very thing that Yonwood really needs.
Like the other two “books of Ember,” this is a thought-provoking story about moral priorities, the self-defeating nature of moralism, the danger that fundamentalism may lead to evil rather than good, and the mistakes people can make in a time of suffocating tension – even when they think they are guided by divine revelation. I suppose some people may choose to read it as an anti-Christian book, but I do not. It doesn’t take a very sophisticated theologian to recognize the twistedness of Mrs. Beeson’s idea that God wants us to love Him to the exclusion of all else. Playing “telephone” with divine prophecy is as dangerous as playing “chicken” with weapons of mass destruction – and one confused, lonely girl who misses her father and loves her dog, learns these lessons the hard way. Perhaps, if we are sufficiently moved by the lyricism of this book, we will be a faster study.