Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Candle in the Dark

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, Read by Wendy Dillon, Listening Library (Audio), 2006

The People of Sparks, by Jeanne DuPrau, Read by Wendy Dillon, Listening Library (Audio), 2006

Probably the most nightmarish moment in DuPrau’s fantastical first novel The City of Ember comes near the end when the next door neighbor of the protagonist, twelve year old Lina, sings to her little sister Poppy. “Rockabye, baby, in the treetops,” Mrs. Murdo sings to the toddler. “What are treetops?” Lina interrupts. “I don’t know,” Mrs. Murdo answers her, “probably some nonsense words.”

There are many ways to telegraph to the reader what kind of strange, new world they are reading about, but this was probably one of the most startling I’ve read in some time. To be sure, it’s near the end of the book, so we’ve already been introduced to the city of Ember, where it is always night though there is no moon and there are no stars, where the only light is the twelve hours of yellow sodium streetlights, and where the storerooms, once stocked high with good food, are more and more empty. We have likewise seen what happens when the lights flicker and go out, when everyone is left in primordial darkness. All of this is strange no doubt, it’s a world we’ve adjusted to, and then that moment comes. What are treetops?

The first two books of Jeanne DuPrau’s younger readers’ trilogy, The City of Ember and The People of Sparks follow our heroine Lina Mayfleet, a young girl and her classmate Doon Harrow. The City of Ember opens on their last day in class, a day called Assignment Day where these twelve year olds graduate from school to occupations. The students reach into a bag held by the mayor and pull out a scrap of paper with the job they will be holding for the next three years. If they are good at the job, they stay there; if they are bad, they are moved; if there is a greater need in another department, they are moved.

Lina, hoping for messenger, greenhouse worker, or doctor’s assistant, pulls out pipeworks laborer, the equivalent of sewer technician. Last to pick is Doon who picks out “messenger” and crumples the paper and dashes it to the floor. An unprecedented misbehavior. After class, in their disappointment, Lina and Doon switch, as she wants to be a messenger more than anything and he wants to be down in the pipeworks where he can get to the city’s generator. He believes Ember is dying and he has an idea how to fix it.

Ember is in fact dying, something we learn through the teamwork and investigations of Doon and Lina, especially after she discovers the enigmatic “Instructions for Egress.” Other secrets are uncovered as the duo race against time translating the instructions while trying to avoid detection by those who seek to keep the Emberites under their sway as well as the return of the illnesses that have plagued Ember in the past such as the coughing sickness.

DuPrau has a nice way of sketching out the social structure of Ember, giving the colony a cohesive sense of both the kind of order planned communities have as well as the sort of well-meshed chaos that is humanity in social settings. She paces herself and her novel’s revelations slowly dripping out things the Emberites take for granted that also act partly as clues for the reader in making sense of the world. What are treetops, indeed, though we have also learned that there are no animals, none, anywhere in Ember, and that the water in the pipeworks of Ember goes somewhere, somewhere out into the great nothingness.

Not to spoil the surprises too much, The People of Sparks, the sequel, shows us what happens to Lina and Doon and the citizens of Ember brave enough to leave that colony with them. Having discovered the world above the ground and why their colony was founded down below the surface of the Earth, Lina and the Emberites cross the wild lands of the world coming at last upon a second community, Sparks.

Whereas The City of Ember was more about closed-mindedness to new ideas and egotistic selfishness, The People of Sparks is more about discrimination and acceptance. With their city finally reaching the point of stability and self-sustainability, the Spark citizens must choose between leaving the Emberites (who know nothing of subsistence farming) to starve or taking them into their commmunity. They choose the latter, ultimately to everyone’s sorrow by and by due to tensions arising between the two groups. It doesn’t help matters that the new additions outnumber the established Sparks citizens by nearly one hundred.

As tensions begin to flare we hear familiar refrains from our own world. “Go back to where you came from!” people shout. “Cave people” is the slur applied to the Emberites. The Sparks town council meets and pass a rule that the Emberites are no longer allowed to eat with the Sparkers families. Both factions raise their own flags. Lina misses most of the increasing hostilities as she stows away with Caspar the Roamer and Maddie, a mismatched pair of scavengers who travel the wasted countryside, returning to Sparks with a variety of salvaged trash and treasures.

Here the mystery of what happened to the world above gets more tantalizing pieces added to its story in this new world Lina comes to know. There were The Four Wars and The Three Plagues. The first were about religion and oil, the remaining three were a wasting illness, a fever, and some kind of pneumonia. The saddest part of this happens when Lina finds the ruins of a city, destroyed previously by humanity’s inability to get along, and at the very same moment back in Sparks the two tribes are circling around each other, one little incident after another ratcheting up the tension.

In the character of belligerent Emberite Tick we see a mirror of our own nation, our own leaders. He riles up other Emberites by staging fake attacks on them: putting poison oak (of which the Emberites are completely ignorant) in the lobby for them to throw out, smudging slurs on the hotel they’ve been lodged in, repeating the worst gossip and inflaming the refugees’ sense of loss. He is the model modern politician, trading on fear and hatred in order to gain power, rather than seeking to build lasting institutions for group security and freedoms.

With the increasing hostilities, including an assault on one of the Sparks town councilmen, the council, made up of two Sparks citizens and one Emberite, decide (in a 2-1 vote) to roll out “The Weapon” as a means to force the refugees out of their area. The book’s plot races along to see if Lina can return in time and will have the right words, the right message, to defuse the situation.

A bit more action than its predecessor, which had the consuming task of introducing the reader to this post-apocalyptic world, The People of Sparks marks the end of DuPrau’s story, the third book recently released being the other end, a prequel. The Prophet of Yonwood, her third novel in this vein, tells of what came before, what lead the world into the state we find it in these two books. The first two books demonstrate that even after they’ve been given reason enough to learn, the human animal remains a darkly shrouded beast.

They also demonstrate that Jeanne DuPrau, a newcomer to the field, is no slouch when it comes to penning understated, intelligent, well-wrought novels for teens that neither patronize the reader nor coddle their own sense of youthful importance. Lina and Doon and Tick may all be the teenagers about whom our stories circle, but they are as flawed and as human as the readers themselves. DuPrau also manages to write with an economic prose that never drifts toward sketchiness or the grandiose size of many younger readers’ novels these days. Her novels might not be the most popular teen fiction out there, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be.

Wendy Dillon delivers two assured readings, her voice as clear as the author’s prose. From time to time the production is clouded over by a bit too much post-production environment noise which is remarkably annoying and distracting, much like the background wallpaper so common on the younger set’s myspace pages. It is a curious application of sound, only being applied from time to time, most notably during the climactic scenes. Despite younger readers’ shorter attention spans, there’s really no need to goose things along here. DuPrau’s work stands well enough on its own.

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