The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
It is sometime in the future, on planet Earth, and something rather terrible has happened. For reasons not explained (though one would infer nuclear apocalypse), most of the world’s population has been eliminated, and only a small few survive, deep below the Earth, generations after the catastrophic event. They have no knowledge of their true origins, or of what happened centuries before their births. All they know is a group of people named “The Builders” created their city and left it stocked with an inexhaustible amount of supplies. That is – the people of Ember thought their supplies were never-ending. As it happens, the people were to have vacated the city some time ago, using instructions left for them by the builders. They were supposed to have resurfaced and rebuilt their community above ground, before supplies ran out, but those instructions were lost – and it is up to two inquisitive and daring twelve-year-old children, who stumble upon the instructions, to find their way out and get a message to the rest of the city: Egress!
3 – Characters well developed.
The two main characters, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, are twelve year olds who have just graduated from school and gone off to join the city’s work force, as all citizens do at the age of twelve. Lina is fiercely loyal and has a strong sense of morality – wanting to do what is right. She is protective of her young sister and respectful of her grandmother and other elders, though she does not hesitate to let adults know when they are in the wrong. Doon is independent and hot-tempered, but sensitive. He too has a strong connection to his family, and his primary goal is to make his father proud. Unlike Lina, though, Doon is more able to leave the city behind and to let its people fend for themselves, preferring to leave further instructions for everyone on how to get out, rather than guide them. Doon’s independence comes across as uncaring or unsympathetic, which makes Lina, in contrast, seem to be the true leader (though she turns out to be forgetful – a trait which could cost the entire city but, fortunately, a convenient dues-ex-machina at the end is her -and their- salvation). These two are well written and distinct, as are the other minor characters, such as the Mayor, Lina’s caring neighbor, the botanist, and the shady shopkeeper. The characters do not have much depth, but this is a young adult novel, so they are as engaging as necessary, without complicating the story.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
*This portion has a few minor spoilers
The highest achievement for this book is the writing. Dialogue and prose are both very well done – simple but not boring, and well-paced overall. The most impressive example of the masterful writing, though, is in all that is described rather than told. This is necessary in a book where the people have forgotten their histories and do not know the meaning of many words or the uses for many tools. One of the greatest moments of the book is when Lina and Doon discover a boat, but have no idea what it is. Fortunately, “The Builders” anticipated this, and have left small cards indicating what each item on/around the boat is (though, not what it does). This type of description happens again later, when Lina and Doon come to the surface and see, for the first time, things like grass, the moon, the sun, a small animal and a new kind of fruit (fresh, not canned). None of these things have names, for the citizens of Ember, so they do not get names in the book – the reader does not witness Lina gazing at the moon but, instead, at the silver lantern in the sky. These types of necessary descriptions for common objects turn out to be some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking moments in the book.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.
Overall, this book is an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic novel. Many of this genre are set in other places – outer space, other planets, underwater. Many are set on Earth itself, but an Earth changed – barren and hostile. The City of Ember, though, is one of the few set almost entirely underground (preceded by Suzanne Martel’s The City Underground in 1963). This makes for an intriguing and uncomfortable story – witnessing people of Earth living under ground, with no knowledge that they are underground; instead, they simply think they are the one and only city – nothing exists outside the city limits, except darkness. There is a definite moral element to the story, a damning indictment of the nature of humanity – condemning and chastising a people who would willingly bring their civilizations to destruction and force their offspring to live miles below the Earth, their histories a complete mystery. There is also an examination of the dangers of power and greed – the age-old tale of a community forced to suffer due to the immorality and cowardice of its leader. Each of these themes is strong and woven well enough into the storyline to make it present without being overt. The one minor nuisance is the story’s resolution (though, of course, the story goes on in subsequent books) – the last few moments of the book allow Lina and Doon to look down upon their city, in an interesting way, but one which, in this reader’s opinion, puts the book’s realism in question.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Dystopia, Eschatology, Post-Apocalyptic Society, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Friendship, Adventure, Coming-of-Age
This book is now available in the SHOP @ Roof Beam Reader