Unwind by Neal Shusterman

From the front flap:
In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would “unwind” them.

Connor’s parents want to be rid of him because he’s a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev’s unwinding has been planned since his birth, as pat of his family’s strict religion. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these three unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. If they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can’t be harmed—but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, [is] wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away.

At some time in America’s future, the second civil war is fought over the issue of abortion. In the end, a compromise is reached. Known as the “bill of life,” the law says that life cannot be touched between birth and age thirteen, but between thirteen and eighteen parents can choose to retroactively abort a child in a process known as “unwinding,” by which the child does not technically die but is instead used for organ donation. Unwinding has now become a common and accepted practice in society.

This is a lot to swallow. One wonders why on earth anyone would agree to such a compromise, and I admit I struggled with the concept. After a while, though, one just accepts it and moves on, enjoying the story Shusterman lays out.

Unwind features three kids who are due to undergo the unwinding process. Connor Lassiter has trouble thinking through his actions and controlling his temper, causing his fed-up parents to decide to have him unwound. Risa Ward is a ward of the state. She’s been living in a state home, working hard to distinguish herself as a pianist, but she’s just not flawless enough to be worth saving, and is scheduled to be sent off to “harvest camp” in order to keep orphanage costs low. Lev Calder is a “tithe,” who was brought up by his parents and church to believe that his eventual unwinding is somehow a holy thing. Circumstances bring the three together, tear them apart, and bring them together again, with no one remaining unchanged.

While the plot of Unwind is certainly fast-paced and frequently surprising, the best thing about it is the way in which the characters are developed. At first, Connor’s lack of foresight and impulse control is maddening. He runs away to avoid being sent to harvest camp, but leaves his cell phone on, making him easy to track. He reacts to a baby left on a doorstep without thinking, saddling him and his companions with an infant they don’t have the resources to care for. In short, he’s more like a typical teen than a typical hero. Very gradually, and with the help from the more logical Risa, Connor evolves. He learns to keep his cool and discovers a talent for fixing things, be they mechanical or societal in nature. He becomes a leader, a genuine hero, and his progress is entirely believable.

Lev also changes a great deal. The youngest of the three, he’s only thirteen, and has spent his whole life being indoctrinated in certain beliefs. When Connor impulsively saves him from his “glorious fate,” Lev is not grateful at all, and turns Connor and Risa in at the first available opportunity. When he realizes that not even his pastor believes that what his family is doing is right, Lev’s world is thrown into turmoil. Separated now from Connor and Risa, he travels on his own, quickly becoming street-wise and meeting up with CyFi, a smart but troubled teen who once received a partial brain transplant from an unwind and is now contending with strange impulses from that other kid. Thrust into the harsh world with no preparation, Lev hardens quickly and learns to think for himself. Through learning of sin and evil, he becomes a much better person than he ever was before.

Risa doesn’t change as dramatically as the others, since she was always level-headed and cognizant of her possible fate. With her, the fact that she’s begun to allow herself to finally hope is what’s significant. I’m fond of her characterization in general, though, especially that she’s capable, competent, and so frequently the voice of reason. Her ability to keep a cool head during medical emergencies is also welcome.

Ultimately, while I could not completely suspend my disbelief in order to buy into the premise of this dystopic future world, I still liked Unwind a great deal. Even though Shusterman makes some Important Points, his approach is still balanced, as he questions whether it’s fair to bring unwanted children into the world in the first place even while his characters struggle so very hard for the right to live. Lastly, I must commend him for a positively chilling depiction of the unwinding process. That will seriously stick with me for a long time.

In conclusion, Unwind is good. Go read it. And Shusterman, get cracking on that sequel (Unwholly, TBA).

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  1. Mrrr. I’m sorry, but that premise is so incredibly unbelievable that I just can’t see myself getting over it. It doesn’t make sense for either side (who apparently cared enough about it to have a freakin war) to agree to it!

    • I don’t disagree. I was able to find many other things about the book to commend, but I can totally see how that one central issue is going to be an obstacle for many.

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