Imagine the nuclear power plant in your town has a meltdown and thousands of people need to be evacuated. Nineteen people are dead and thousands are homeless. Now imagine that you are sixteen years old, both of your parents were killed in the accident, and your father is the one being held responsible for the disaster.
This is how Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands begins. Emily hears people talking about her family. She hears their anger and desire to place blame. She is scared, and she doesn’t want anyone to know who she is, so she runs away and changes her name. She tries hiding out at a teen shelter until she thinks someone might be on the verge of discovering who she is, so she moves on to become one of the many homeless children on the streets of Burlington, Vermont.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is written in the form of Emily’s journal entries. Through her journal writing, we slowly come to know the story of her life after the reactor melts down. Her writing jumps around in time, in much the same way as her thoughts would if she were speaking aloud. “I built an igloo against the cold out of black trash bags filled with wet leaves” is how she begins her story.
Bohjalian’s narration of a teenage girl is very believable. In the acknowledgments, he states that he has his nineteen year old daughter to thank for that.
At times, Emily’s story is hard to read about. She describes life on the street; how things work, what your need to do sometimes to get money. She describes how she hates herself, and the kinds of things she does as a result of this. But the story is compelling, and I read it with a sense of hope for Emily as she navigated her way back to herself. I was deeply curious about how this book was going to end.
Bohjalian uses a nuclear meltdown as the background to his book, but really this story is about the idea of home and identity. Who are we when we no longer have a home? And, how can we find ourselves again?
I have read several books by Chris Bohjalian, some of which I have liked better than others. I would say this is one of his better ones.
Here are some passages from the book:
This was nothing like what my life was supposed to be. And the Oxies weren’t helping. I felt like the lowest, most vile, most pathetic thing on the planet… But, looking back, you know what’s the saddest thing? How easy it is to get used to that feeling when you’re hungry and scared and alone.
Sometimes I just wish I could go back in time. God. I so really do.
I know I’ve been through a lot, but sometimes I’m not sure if I can think of anything sadder than a homeless person with a homeless dog.
We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we’re either very resilient or super callous. I don’t know which.
… home was the place where, when you have done absolutely everything wrong, they have to take you in.
I could close my eyes all I wanted, but I still had no one to hold my hand.
You can find another good review about this book at The Gilmore Guide to Books.