“Ripped from the headlines” used to be an incredibly popular slogan for movies and TV episodes. A story based on real situations rather than one pulled from a writer’s mind was intriguing and a little frightening. When I heard the premise of Unwind, the most captivating aspect was that I could see it really happening. I can imagine a world where major problems seem to have been solved, but there’s no love left. I can imagine a world where people agree on when life begins, but not when it ends. I shudder to think about what happens to the people who become even more than collateral damage.
Unwind, by Neal Shusterman, is set in a world not too far in the future from ours. The U.S. has ended its second civil war by way of Constitutional amendments called the Bill of Life. Human life is protected from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Parents may choose to “retroactively abort” a child between ages thirteen and eighteen by signing an order to have the child “unwound.” The child is taken into state custody and goes through the mysterious procedure of unwinding, the result of which is that all the person’s organs are made available for transplant into others. By this logic, life doesn’t technically end, it just changes. You’re still out there, somewhere, in pieces. Unwinding is common and accepted…except perhaps by those who are sent to be unwound. Connor’s parents sign the unwind order because he gets in fights and can’t be controlled. Risa is a ward of the state, so unwinding her frees up a place for another unwanted child. Lev is a tithe, the tenth child in his family, conceived and raised to be unwound. For different reasons, they all try to escape their fate, and their journey is quite the wild ride.
I’ve never read anything by Shusterman before, but I can tell after finishing Unwind that he’s a great storyteller. The novel moved quickly, but it never felt rushed. While reading (which I usually do in public), I found myself having to explain my audible gasps and shocked comments to the people around me, saying, “It’s a really intense book.” I knew there would be a sequel, but I hoped this installment would come to a decisive end, and it did. My yardstick for a good serial novel is Harry Potter: each book feels complete in itself, but the story is clearly not over until it’s over. With this story, I wanted it to be over, but I didn’treally.
I also loved how much this story made me think. When I read the preface explaining the Bill of Life, my first reaction was disbelief that the “Life Brigade” would ever accept those terms. Wait until these apparently unwanted people have free will and personalities and then give up on them? That might be worse than abortion! Legal murder still isn’t right. As more characters enter the scene and we learn their stories, it becomes clear that unwinding is just a grisly yet convenient solution to the basic problem of people’s inability to be responsible. If you have a child you don’t want, that becomes someone else’s problem. Unwanted babies can be “storked”: left on the doorstep of a family who then must take legal custody. State children’s homes are somehow still flooded. No one seems to mention the logical solution (the same one that would help today): stop making babies if you don’t want them, and stop baby-making if you don’t want to make babies. My heart broke as I realized how effective a solution chastity could be to these “unwanted” lives.
Even when I wasn’t wishing someone would teach these people to use their brains instead of just their bodies (and others’!), I appreciated the other thought-provoking aspects of the story. Several “unwinds” have a conversation about the concept of the soul. If it exists, where do the souls of unwinds go? Do they not get them because God knows they’ll be unwound? If the soul doesn’t exist, do you really stay “alive” even if you’re unwound? How does consciousness come into play? What happens when you graft an unwind’s brain onto yours? Beyond the mechanics of unwinding, what happens when urban legends aren’t so legendary? Can unloved people learn to love? Does the concept of tithing, of giving one tenth of what you receive back to God, extend to giving up people? At what age can you speak for yourself, and what do you do when no one wants to listen?
Unwind is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is timely, compelling, and gripping. It lacks an overtly female appeal without lacking heart. I think boys would read it—and I can’t say that for every book I read. My only complaint is that I hadn’t even heard of it in the five years since its publication. Unwind made me think about life issues in a totally new way, and I think it will for you, too. What would it take for you to declare the pro-life/pro-choice battle “over”? What are you willing to fight for?
Up next: YOUCAT, the youth version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church