Unwind by Neal Shusterman is a science fiction book published in 2007. It takes place in a future America where a civil war has been fought over abortion and a compromise has been made — all pregnancies will lead in a child, but parents have the option to have undesirable children “unwound” between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. To be unwound meant that they would be harvested and their body parts would be used as organ donations and put in other people; because 100% of the children are being used, they’re still alive, so it’s technically not an abortion. The book follows a group of teenagers who are scheduled to be unwound but have run away and are attempting to survive.
Connor’s parents have signed the unwind papers because he is a rebellious teenager; Risa is from a state home orphanage and is being unwound due to a surplus of children and not enough money to support them; Lev is being unwound as a tithe, a sacrifice from his religious family to serve the society with organ donation.
Connor runs away before he is taken to a harvest camp, but in doing so, he causes Risa’s bus to crash and takes Lev as a hostage to prevent being shot by the Juvey-cop, so the three of them are thrust together. Connor also shoots the juvey-cop with his own tranquilizer gun, so Connor is even more on the run. Lev is initially resistant to the escape, as he has been conditioned to believe that it is his duty to be unwound. They escape to the next town and attempt to get on a school bus to pretend to be regular teenagers and not raise suspicion; however, as they’re getting on the bus, Connor is distracted by a baby who is being storked — part of the unwinding laws has given the society “storking,” which is legal abandonment by mothers who do not want to raise their children and would have gotten an abortion. The lack of abortion has not created unwanted babies, and as long as mothers aren’t caught, they can legally leave their baby on the doorstep of a house, which makes the baby the homeowners’ responsibility. Connor notices the baby, as he shares with Risa and Lev, because years before his family was storked, but rather than raise the baby, his parents re-storked it to a neighbor. Two weeks later, they were storked again, but to their horror, they realized it was the same baby; their neighbors have been passing the baby around from doorstep to doorstep for two weeks, and the baby is now sickly and dies when Connor’s parents take it to the hospital. Connor has unconsciously gone to the baby and picked it up as the owner of the house opens the door. Risa, Connor, and Lev now have a baby to care for.
When they get to the school, they hide in the bathroom. Unbeknownst to Connor and Risa, Lev slips out and tells the secretary of the school that two unwinds have taken him hostage. While Lev is in the office, he calls his parents and his pastor, Pastor Dan, answers the phone. Pastor Dan tells him that he’s kept his name out of the papers so Lev can get a new life — this goes against everything Lev has been taught to think about unwinding and tithes. He had grown up thinking that this was God’s plan, but now to hear that his pastor is telling him that unwinding is wrong, he doesn’t know what to think or do. Lev pulls the fire alarm to create havoc and help Connor and Risa escape the juvey-cops and to escape himself. A kind teacher helps them by directing them to a woman who is helping unwinds. There are a group of kids she’s hiding in her basement, including a big bully type named Roland.
Sonia, the woman who’s hiding them, keeps them until a man who drives an ice cream truck shows up to take them to their next destination. The teacher, Hannah, comes back to take the baby from Risa — she knows they won’t get far with a baby and she promises Risa and Connor that she’ll care for it. The kids are taken to their next holding area, a warehouse next to an airport.
Meanwhile, Lev has joined forces with a kid named Cyrus, who calls himself CyFi and nicknames Lev “Fry”, for small fry. Cyrus and Lev are on their way to Joplin for reasons Cyrus won’t reveal to Lev. On their way, Cyrus suddenly changes his demeanor and personality, until he steals something and freaks out. He reveals to Lev that 1/8th of his brain has been replaced by a brain from an unwind and that part of his brain sometimes takes over and makes him do terrible things. He’s on his way to Joplin to find out what it is the unwind wants him to do there and to see if he can understand him better. Cyrus teaches Lev some street smarts along the way, as Lev has been sheltered his entire life.
When they get to Joplin, Cyrus’s brain directs them to the unwind’s former house, where the unwind’s parents are very confused and scared. Cyrus starts digging in their backyard, revealing all of the things that the unwound kid stole before he was unwound. Lev escapes after he screams at the unwind’s parents to tell Cyrus (who is now being controlled by the unwind’s brain) that they forgive him.
Risa and Connor, as well as the other kids that are in hiding, have been packed into crates and taken by plane to a place called The Graveyard — it’s literally an airplane graveyard in the deserts of Arizona that a former Air Force admiral has taken over and is using as a refuge for unwinds. They’re sad to see that Roland survived the trip, as he has become more and more of a bully and influential with the other kids. Risa understands what Roland is doing and convinces Connor that he needs to not rise to Roland’s challenge — the story of Connor’s escape from the juvey-cops has become legend, and the unwinds are all telling the story of the “Akron AWOL”, who they don’t know is Connor. Roland indeed tries to challenge Connor when he corners Risa in the bathroom and attempts to rape her — Connor interrupts but remains calm, telling Roland that the two of them broke up. Connor later tells Risa that he barely managed to control his anger, and they realize that they have feelings for each other. Lev has also made it to the Graveyard, but his personality is almost unrecognizable to Risa and Connor — he’s angry and rebellious, nothing like the gentle tithe they knew.
The kids in the camp, however, are becoming more and more unsettled — Roland has been getting them against the Admiral, and they rebel, destroying things and trying to attack him. The Admiral, who was in the hospital wing with Risa, has a heart attack. Roland, Connor, and Risa fly the helicopter to take the Admiral to the hospital to try to save the Admiral. While they’re there, Roland turns in Connor, Risa, and himself; however, he barters with the cops for his life by turning in the kids at the Graveyard.
The cops raid the Graveyard and take all of the kids to a harvest camp. Risa’s musical talents grant her amnesty from immediate unwinding; the head of the camp has made a band of the talented kids so that they can play music on the roof of the unwinding facility so calm the kids. Roland is unwound, and a description is given in the book, and it’s horrifying. Just saying.
Connor is set to be unwound, and Risa recognizes him. Lev has joined with other kids to become a clapper, people who turn themselves into bombs by having explosive chemicals put in their bloodstreams that detonate when they clap. They plan to detonate the harvesting facility, but when Lev finds out that Connor is going to be unwound, he moves up the detonation time to save Connor.
Just as Connor is being taken into the harvesting facility, the two other kids that are clappers with Lev detonate themselves and the harvesting facility is destroyed. Lev intended to clap as well, but at the last minute changes his mind, determined to pull out unwound youth from the wreckage and save Connor. Connor, Lev, and Risa are all taken to the hospital — Connor’s injuries have made him the recipient of unwound parts, including, to Connor’s horror, and arm from Roland. The nurse at the hospital has given him the ID of a guard from the facility that had been killed, to keep Connor from being harvested himself. Risa, having been on the roof with the band when it collapsed, is now paralyzed from the waist down and is refusing treatment, which saves her from being unwound. Lev’s blood is still full of chemicals, and because he is the only one who did not clap, has become a sort of folk hero and media darling, as he chose to save people rather than destroy them.
The novel ends with a party at the Admiral’s house, celebrating the birthday of his son, who he and his wife unwittingly had unwound. All the people who received parts from his son attend, bringing him entirely there. Connor and Risa go back to the Graveyard, carrying on the Admiral’s work as he had refused a heart from an unwound and is now too weak to go back. They also reveal, however, that they will be seeking to destroy other harvesting facilities, so that unwinding will end completely.
Time for a sequel!
This book was amazing. The argument about abortion is very topical in today’s political climate. The writing and the narration, which switched between several points of view, kept it fresh and interesting — it was nice to get different perspectives to explain different parts of the society, like the clappers and the storking. The story was amazing and well executed; at no point did they have a new concept that wasn’t fleshed out and well explained.
I was reading this during the school week, and I had the book on my desk; when my students saw it, they all went craaaazy about wanting to talk with me about it. They all loved the book and were excited to discuss it. As soon as I finished it, I put the sequel on request at the library.
Following in the footsteps of Jonathan Swift, Shusterman uncorks a Modest Proposal of his own to solve a Pro-Life/Pro-Choice dilemma. Set in a future in which abortions are outlawed but parents have the option of signing over their 13- to 17-year-olds to be used as organ donors, the tale focuses on 16-year-old Connor, who falls in with other prospective Unwinds and finds a temporary refuge (thanks to a clandestine organization with its own peculiar agenda) before being captured and sent to Happy Jack Harvest Camp. Though laced with intrigue, betrayals, and narrow squeaks, the story is propelled less by the plot (which is largely a series of long set pieces) than by an ingeniously developed cast and premise. But even readers who gravitate more to plot-driven fiction will find this present-tense page-turner thrilling, though it’s guaranteed to leave some feeling decidedly queasy—despite the (improbable) happy ending.
What keeps “Unwind” moving are the creative and shocking details of Shusterman’s kid-mining dystopia. First, there are the Orwellian linguistic tricks. People who have been unwound are not “dead” — they are “in a divided state.” Then there are the rules and rituals. Before being unwound, Lev is honored with a lavish “tithing party,” which bears a strong resemblance to a bar mitzvah. The most terrifying scene is devoted to the unwinding itself. The author’s decision to describe the process is a questionable one — a book’s great unknown can leave the strongest impression on a reader — but he executes as precisely as the surgeons who perform the unwinding.
Ultimately, though, the power of the novel lies in what it doesn’t do: come down explicitly on one side or the other. After all, there are benefits to unwinding — children with fatal diseases can be saved by perfect transplants. And if the people of Jesusland can come to understand their countrymen in the United States of Canada — or vice versa — aren’t we all better off?
New York Times 2008
This book is begging to be used in a book talk for high school students. Begging.
Peters, J. (2007, October 15). Unwind by neal shusterman. Booklist. Retrieved from https://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=2120692&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1
Shusterman, N. (2007). Unwind. New York, NY: Simon And Schuster.
Vizzini, N. (2008, March 16). Young and in the way. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/books/review/Vizzini-t.html?_r=2&