Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

By Chris Bohjalian

(Doubleday, $15.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Chris Bohjalian, the New Yorker turned Vermonter, has published 17 books, including four bestsellers: “The Sandcastle Girls,” “Skeletons at the Feast,” “The Double Bind” and “Midwives.” Which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  As readers of “The Double Bind,” which incorporates parts of the story told in “The Great Gatsby,” will recall, Bohjalian is a great admirer of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and owns at least 42 editions of books by or about him. Bohjalian often works contemporary or historical issues, such as domestic violence, gun safety, the genocide of Armenians and the horrors of World War II into his novels, adding weight to his well-written books.

What is this book about?

Bohjalian’s latest blends the story of one individual – a troubled teenage girl in Vermont who adores the poetry of Emily Dickinson and wishes her parents would stop drinking so heavily – and a mega-disaster. That horror is an explosion in a nuclear power reactor, brought on when weeks of rain cause a dam to overflow, which in turn floods the power plant, leading to a meltdown and the release of deadly radiation in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Emily’s parents worked – and were killed — at the plant, and her father may have contributed to the accident. Suddenly orphaned and forced to hide her identity from furious Vermonters who have lost everything, Emily takes to the road and experiences the travail of homeless kids, even as she tries to mother a runaway 9-year-old foster child and find her way back home, or to what is left of it. The title, by the way, recalls a heartbreaking moment in recent Connecticut history.

Why you’ll like it:

You can call this a dystopian novel, but it is far more than that.  While the nuclear meltdown ruins the lives and land of residents of the Northeast Kingdom, those who live out of the danger zone are far less troubled. Emily’s story bridges these two worlds and brings in elements of drug use, human trafficking and exploitation of needy kids. But grim as these aspects of the novel are, Emily’s voice, as she moves back and forth in telling her story, is wise beyond her years, often sad and poignant and even more often sardonic and  surprisingly funny. Those who live downwind of aging nuclear reactors ought to read this book, and so should any reader seeking to meet a lively, if troubled, teenager trying to cope with a world turned upside down. Once you have met Emily Shepard, you will not soon forget her.

What others are saying:

Says Library Journal: “Emily Shepard is hiding out in a shelter made of ice and trash bags after a nightmarish meltdown at a nuclear plant in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that left her parents dead. Since the meltdown might have been her father’s fault, she’s not reaching out for help, but she does take a homeless boy named Cameron under her wing. More heartfelt, engaged work from relentlessly best-selling, best-book author Bohjalian, and how can you not love a heroine who identifies with Emily Dickinson?”

Booklist says:  “When a disastrous meltdown occurs at a Vermont nuclear power plant, forcing people to flee for their lives and face permanent exile from their beloved homes, everyone blames Emily’s parents. Her father was chief engineer, and her mother was the communications director, and they had a reputation for drinking. Terrified, Emily, a bookish, 16-year-old only child, runs away and ends up crashing in the squalid lair of a guy called Poacher, who recruits homeless teens for his drug-and-prostitution ring. But smart Emily, who knowledgeably reveres Emily Dickinson, gets it together once she takes responsibility for a nine-year-old boy on the run from foster care and builds a trash-bag igloo to protect them from the bitter cold. In his sixteenth novel, the versatile Bohjalian has Emily tell her harrowing, tragic story retrospectively, under medical care. If only this well-meant and compelling tale offered more scenes depicting the shocking aftermath of a nuclear disaster to provide an even more arresting and significant context for traumatized yet tough and resilient young Emily’s sad, brave saga.”

Says Elizabeth Hand, in the Washington Post: “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian’s terrific new novel, could serve as a master class on how to write the thinking reader’s bestseller. Suspenseful, provocative, often terrifying yet compassionate . . . all while creating one of the most memorable teenage protagonists in recent fiction . . . Moving, hopeful and grounded in the everyday, and as heartbreaking as the inspiration for the novel’s title.

“In 2011, Hurricane Irene caused cataclysmic floods in Southern Vermont, cutting off small towns for weeks and imperiling the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant just a few miles from Brattleboro — an area far more populous and closer to the East Coast megalopolis than Bohjalian’s imaginary facility in the Northeast Kingdom. His wrenching descriptions of mass evacuation, bumper-to-bumper traffic, refugee camps and the plight of those suddenly made homeless cuts frighteningly close to the bone in this era of dramatic climate change and mega-storms.

“Sometimes I think I was at my best when the world seemed to be at its worst,” Emily muses. And while Bohjalian provides no simplistic happy ending for his young heroine, he gives us something much more satisfying: a finale that’s moving, hopeful and grounded in the everyday, and as heartbreaking as the inspiration for the novel’s title, revealed in its final pages. I closed this book with regret that it had ended — and relief to know that the Vermont Yankee plant will be shut down by the end of this year,”

Publishers Weekly says: “Bohjalian’s impressive 16th novel charts the life of a teenage girl undone after a nuclear disaster. . . . Emily is banished once she’s pegged as the daughter of heavy-drinking parents both employed (and held responsible by surviving townsfolk) at the power plant. . . . Frequent flashbacks to her days at school and the youth shelter show her surrounded by influential miscreants, self-abusing “cutters,” and drug takers like friends Andrea and Camille. Stealing and shoplifting through neighboring towns in order to survive the frigid New England winter becomes an often harrowing ordeal for Emily and Cameron as she attempts to figure out her next move. Through her first-person narration, readers become intimately familiar with Emily (and Cameron), as she grapples with the frustrating life of a misunderstood homeless youth on the run. Emily continually surprises herself with her newfound maternal instincts for Cameron and how difficult it is to survive life on the streets. Her admiration for kindred spirit Emily Dickinson serves to humanize her plight, as does an epiphany in the book’s bittersweet conclusion.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “After a nuclear meltdown, a Vermont teen flees to the mean streets of Burlington.  . . .Fearing she will be asked to testify about her father’s alcoholism, she assumes a new identity and claims to be 18. After bouncing from a Burlington shelter to the home of a drug dealer who exploits her and other young women as prostitutes, Emily rescues 9-year-old Cameron, an escapee from an abusive foster home. During the frigid Vermont winter, the two inhabit an igloo of frozen, leaf-filled trash bags, but when spring thaw melts their domicile, Emily gets a waitressing job and a place to stay, thanks to a shelter acquaintance. This newfound security is short-lived: Cameron falls seriously ill, and after an emergency room visit threatens to expose both their identities, Emily fears she has run out of Plan B’s. Readers hoping for a futuristic novel imagining the aftermath of a Fukushima-type disaster in the United States may be disappointed—Bohjalian’s primary focus is on examining, in wrenching detail, the dystopia wrought by today’s economy. Emily’s voice is a compelling one, however, and hers is a journey readers will avidly follow.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Goodwin Branch.

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