Like so many novels that fill the shelves of YA sections in bookstores, Unwind by Neal Shusterman falls into the dystopian subgenre. It’s set sometime in the future (no exact year is given…perhaps a discussion point for readers) after “The Heartland War,” a second civil war fought between the pro-life and pro-choice armies which was resolved with The Bill of Life.
“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.” Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.”
Unwinding is an advanced medical operation that involves harvesting every part of a person’s body (limbs, internal organs, eyes, brain tissue, etc.) so that the pieces may be given to other individuals who need them (e.g. a factory employee who lost a hand in a work accident will be given a replacement hand from a teenager who was unwound). This process is legal and considered superior to abortion because the teens being unwound are not technically killed; they supposedly continue to live their life through their various body parts that are spread between different receivers. A child may be unwound between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, but once they reach eighteen, they are legally an adult and exempt from the procedure.
Teens are unwound for a variety of reasons, and the three main characters each represent a different justification for the procedure. Connor is a sixteen-year-old troublemaker. He gets into fights at school, acts impulsively, and doesn’t seem to care about much. His parents sign the unwind order to rid themselves of a problem child. Risa is fifteen and lives in a state house (orphanage). She plays the piano and is in good academic standing, but she isn’t excellent enough for the orphanage’s headmaster to justify keeping her around. The state house is overcrowded, and Risa is seen as an average kid taking up space. She is sent off to be unwound simply because she wasn’t outstanding. Levi rounds out the main trio, but he has little in common with Connor or Risa. At thirteen years old, Levi has known his entire life that he was meant to be unwound. It’s part of his religion, and he believes that to be unwound would be to fulfill his destiny. When their paths cross, a level of chaos that can only arise out of the desperation to avoid unwinding ensues.
Despite being published ten years ago, Unwind remains extremely relevant (especially in today’s political climate) and stands out among other dystopian novels. Readers around the ages of the main characters are obviously the intended audience as they are most likely to find Connor, Risa, and Levi relatable, but the novel is so thought-provoking and original that it can be enjoyed by older readers as well. If assigned in a classroom, it will be a story students carry with them long after the summer ends and quite possibly one that stimulates a desire for other books that challenge or significantly alter they way they view certain aspects of society.
By: Tess DeMeyer
Shusterman, Neal. Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2007. Print.