Nickie Randolph wants Greenhaven, her family’s ancient estate in the small town of Yonwood, to be her new home. She’s tired of Philadelphia, and with the world in the state it’s in, big cities aren’t safe. Neither her aunt nor her mother wants to take care of the big hulking house now that her great-grandfather has died, but Nickie talks her aunt Crystal into taking her along when she goes to fix up the house for sale, and she fully plans to spend that time convincing her aunt to keep the house so the family can move in and be together…someday, when her father gets back from his top secret government project. Since she’s got a plan anyway, Nickie adds two more goals: to fall in love, and to do something to help the world.
But things in Yonwood aren’t as perfect as she imagined. Like everywhere in the country, the town is worried about an almost inevitable war, but the town thinks it will be spared. A local citizen, Althea Tower, has had a vision from God of the world on fire, and now in a fevered fit she gives commands from the Lord. Most of the town’s members have decided to do their best to follow the Prophet’s orders, even when they’re hard and require sacrifices, like no singing. But things start to get worse as the world gets closer to war. People who don’t obey the Prophet are singled out and shunned, and are forced to wear electronic bracelets that produce noise designed to drive them crazy.
At first, Nickie thinks following the Prophet is the way to go…but when she inadvertently betrays her only friend in the town and almost gets an innocent man arrested, she starts to wonder. Then the Prophet gives an order that seems impossible to accept, and Nickie has to decide once and for all what she believes.
Yonwood is the prequel to The City of Ember and The People of Sparks, which I absolutely loved. Those take place two hundred years after a Crisis (consisting of a series of wars and plagues) almost wipes out humanity. This book is the lead-up to that Crisis, and as such, is creepier. Also lending to its air of creepiness is the fact that it’s much closer to our own world. Nickie lives in the United States, with technology barely a step ahead of our own; they talk of fighting terrorists and the President (who is unnamed) keeps saying war is imminent and asking the country to pray for their success. It reads as our world, ratcheted up a notch—a creepy feeling indeed.
This book tackles religion in the same way Ember deals with the environment and Sparks deals with war. But ultimately its message is neither that religion is good or bad (though it has a strong hint of atheism), but that fanaticism is the problem:
“Could you answer my question now?” said Nickie. “About how you tell if something is good or bad?”
“It’s a deep question,” Crystal said, “and I’m deeply tired. I guess if I had to answer, I’d say that you look to see if what you’re doing causes harm. If it hurts anyone. If so, it’s probably not good.”
“What if it doesn’t hurt any people,” said Nickie, “or even animals, but it hurts God?”
“Hurts God? How can God be hurt?”
“Well, I mean if what you do goes against what God says.”
“You’d have to know what he says, then, wouldn’t you? Assuming he’s up there saying anything.” Crystal swallowed a spoonful of soup. “It’s too deep for me,” she said.”
That would be the quote that jumped out at me; it sums up the message of the book pretty well. But unlike the other two in the series, this book feels built around the allegory, as though the message is put ahead of the characters and the story. I love that scifi can be used to create parallels to our own world, but I always object when story is sacrificed for morals.
The book overall is compelling; the tension builds up through it as the war draws closer. I love the way it handles Nickie’s decision to fall in love: she acknowledges she’s too young to meet someone she’ll love forever, but she wants to feel something passionate, so she’s trying to figure out which of the boys in Yonwood she could fall for. In the end, she realizes she’s fallen in love with the dog she adopted, and the boy she met becomes her best friend. Awesome.
But aside from the issue of moral-over-story, I had a few problems with the ending; they’re spoilery, so read at your own risk. show
So, due to those two elements, this book gets 4 cupcakes instead of the 5 the rest of the series earned. It’s still excellently written, compelling, and fascinating; I definitely didn’t want to put it down. I’d recommend it in a heartbeart.
Tags: Jeanne DuPrau