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'Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands': A troubled teen in flight from a nuclear meltdown

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 1:57 p.m.

Wiser than the adults around her yet convinced she's a hopeless loser, Emily Shepard is a literary descendant of Holden Caulfield.

Like J.D. Salinger's famous teenage misfit, Emily relates her harrowing story of escape and survival from within the confines of a mental institution, where she's being treated for anti-social behavior and self-mutilation.

Unlike Holden, who went AWOL from his fancy prep school and wandered around New York City for a few days, excoriating phonies, the resourceful heroine of Chris Bohjalian's “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is on the run from a full-blown nuclear disaster.

Bohjalian models the industrial accident at the center of the novel on the catastrophic meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in March 2011. Emily's parents, who work at the fictional plant in Vermont's rural Northeast Kingdom, are killed in the explosion.

Emily, who's 16 at the time, is evacuated from the contaminated zone with her schoolmates but flees to Burlington, some 80 miles to the southwest, when locals and the media start blaming her dad, a plant engineer previously disciplined for drinking, for the disaster. It turns out both her parents were alcoholics, partly explaining, at least in her mind, why even before the calamity, she was one messed-up kid.

For a time Emily lives in a teen shelter, then she moves on to a squalid apartment filled with other runaways and druggies and presided over by a latter-day Fagin, who forces the girls into prostitution and makes the boys steal. Later, living on the streets in Burlington's frigid winter, she befriends a 9-year-old homeless boy and builds them an igloo out of black plastic garbage bags filled with wet leaves.

Eventually, Emily makes her way back to her family's abandoned McMansion in the contaminated woods near the plant to search for her beloved dog and to make peace with the memory of her basically decent, but flawed, parents.

Bohjalian delivers a thoroughly engrossing and poignant coming-of-age story set against a nightmarish backdrop as real as yesterday's headlines.

And, in Emily, he's created a remarkable teenager, a passionate, intelligent girl equally capable of cutting herself with a razor blade and quoting Emily Dickinson, then explaining it all to us in a wry, honest voice as distinctive as Holden's.

Ann Levin is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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