I’ve always considered myself a survivor. Not in the “Naked and Afraid” sense of the word; rather, I’ve always prided myself on my independence. I’ve always had a fierce determination to overcome obstacles on my own. Some of this is the result of my upbringing, but I feel like regardless of how I could have been raised, this core character trait would still be a part of who I am. Really I suppose it’s a part of all of us – evolution requires us to have some sort of fight to stay alive.
When I chose Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands as our book club read this month, I didn’t expect to find myself identifying with the main character as much as I did. The book’s narrator is Emily Shepard, a teenager living in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, whose parents are killed in a nuclear meltdown at the local plant. The meltdown forces thousands of people to relocate from the region, which has become dangerously radioactive. Emily’s father is blamed for the meltdown, and post-mortem becomes “the most hated man in America.” Confused and scared, Emily takes off on her own, heading to Burlington where she creates a new identity, distancing herself from her father’s reputation. Emily becomes homeless and spends the next year doing whatever it takes to stay alive, including stealing and prostitution. She spends most of the book just fighting to make it through each day – often surrounded by others but very much independent and on her own. Her family’s role in the recent disaster makes her feel unlovable and wary of opening up to those around her.
Despite her independence, Emily eventually allows herself to become attached to another person, a young homeless boy named Cameron. She protects and cares for him, but also depends on him for comfort and emotional support. He becomes her “family,” helping fill the void created by the sudden death of her parents. Emily can only go it alone for so long without needing that human connection. And in the end, she learns that she hasn’t been as alone as she thought. Her friend and her mother have been searching for her the whole time she has been missing; she can let go of some of her sense of responsibility, as she has people upon whom she can finally rely.
It’s taken me most of my life to learn that dependence on others can be a wonderful, freeing thing. Despite my independent nature, I’ve learned to allow myself to become attached, and to lean on others when obstacles come my way. I’m lucky to have a husband and good friends who have helped me reach this place. Like Emily, I sometimes still feel totally on my own in tough situations, only to realize that I’m surrounded by a network of support.
As much as I enjoyed the story, I did find the narrator’s voice a little off-putting. Her language is meant to reflect Emily’s teenage identity, but it feels like the author, Chris Bohjalian, took it a little too far. He tries too hard to make Emily sound like an “authentic” teen. He also has Emily jump around quite a bit while telling the story, which makes it hard to follow at times. However, these flaws are not enough to take away from the power and poignancy of Emily’s struggles.
While the subject matter of homelessness, prostitution, drug use, and rape is really quite dark, in a lot of ways this story is a testament to the power and nature of the human spirit. The ferocious resolve within us to survive, combined with our need for human connection and support, even if we feel, like Emily does, too broken and unlovable to deserve it.
A word from Mil:
While I enjoyed the book, I found the main character almost completely unrelatable. I’m an extremely practical person by nature, and Emily’s tendency to make irrational, snap decisions was something I couldn’t really understand. It seemed to me that most of her problems (save the demise of both of her parents) could have been easily handled had she made better choices. Perhaps that’s a gross oversimplification, but I did find it frustrating at times to watch her struggle when obvious solutions were so readily apparent. Though I suppose if Emily hadn’t made the mistakes she did, it wouldn’t have been a terribly compelling story! That being said, the book did provide an interesting commentary on human nature and what we truly need not just to survive, but to persevere: love, companionship and connection.
Have you read Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands or any of Chris Bohjalian’s other books? Also, Mil has picked our next book club book: A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Read along with us!