Share This Page

'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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.