Book reviews are a little out of the ordinary for GMD; but as it touches on homelessness, exploitation and nuclear cataclysm, Vermont novelist Chris Bohjalian’s latest release ventures right into our bailiwick.
Known for his well-researched, issue oriented story-telling, in “Close Your Eyes. Hold Hands” (Doubleday), Bohjalian invokes the nightmare of a homegrown Fukushima-style nuclear disaster.
The pivotal event takes place not in Vernon, but at a fictitious facility located in the Northeast Kingdom; and Bohjalian has taken great pains with the technical accuracy of his story. Benefitting from the counsel of our mutual friends at Fairewinds Energy Education, Maggie and Arnie Gundersen, the author successfully avoids pure sensation while telling a poignant tale of life in the shadowy aftermath of a massive radiation release.
The story is told by Emily, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents have presumably died in the accident, and who are believed by the fleeing population to have been guilty of negligence leading to the reactor meltdown.
Isolated both by the loss of her parents and the real and imagined hostility she encounters as their daughter, Emily slips away during a mass evacuation of her schoolmates, adopts a false identity and flees alone.
She ends up living the life of a homeless youth in Burlington, eking out a sordid living in the company of other desperate individuals, including a nine-year-old child whom she attempts to protect as a surrogate for all the loved ones she expects never to see again.
She cannot fully abandon the idea of returning to the Exclusion Zone where her home was, in order to finally achieve closure; and the certain knowledge that she must inevitably confront the mortal truth of her family’s fate underlies her daily battle just to survive and evade the authorities.
Bohjalian does a credible job of imagining the interior dialogue of a teenage girl of exceptional intellect but conflicted emotions. Emily is devoted to the poetry of her namesake, Emily Dickinson, and the story is interwoven with facts about the poet with which a troubled young woman might identify.
It is also rich with references to landmarks and habits that anyone familiar with the downtown Burlington scene would relate to as authentic.
Remembering Bohjalian’s delightful features in the Free Press back in the days of his own daughter’s infancy and early years, when he was just learning about the unfamiliar world of little girls, it is easy to imagine that she was his inspiration when he chose the challenging viewpoint from which to unwind his narrative.
It is always risky for an author to adopt the voice of the opposite gender; even more so if it is the voice of that gender in the turbulent years of youth when, by design, her mannerisms, tastes and even vocabulary are almost hermetically inaccessible.
That the reader can forget the male novelist’s identity for a while and enter the painful world of a displaced girl child is a testament to Bohjalian’s talent. It suggests a penchant for risk-taking that parallel’s that of his young heroine.
It is only in the closing pages of the book that we are reminded of where we recall hearing the title sentence
“Close your eyes. Hold hands.”
Those were the instructions given by police to the small survivors of the Sandy Hook massacre as they were led away from the building through a path strewn with the corpses of their classmates.
In raising that memory, Bohjalian reminds us that life-altering tragedy is an every day possibility for each innocent in our perilous world.