Welcome to America. The land of the free, the home of the brave, and the birthplace of the humane practice of salvaging unwanted teens for body parts.
What’s that look for? It’s humane, really! No no no, we don’t kill them! They’re just . . . living divided! Wait, where are you going?! COME BACK! THIS IS AMERICA, EVERYTHING WE DO IS RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Neal Shusterman’s first novel in this universe kept me up reading until 2 a.m. one night. I had high expectations coming into the sequel. Not just for action and suspense (although that’s awesome), but for worldview. Unwind is probably the most eye-opening analogy for abortion that I’ve ever come across in my lifetime. Is that what Neal is writing about? I don’t know for sure. I’m inclined to think so. Regardless, that’s what we should take from it, because what he is definitely writing about beyond a shadow of a doubt is the decreasing perception of the value of human life.
However, things are starting to look up for our three heroes as this book begins. Thanks to Connor, the infamous Akron AWOL, people are starting to rethink unwinding. It’s an actual discussion for the first time in years, and lawmakers have reduced the maximum age for unwinding from 18 to 17. Great, right? Kind of, but not really. Think of this as when the partial-birth abortion ban was passed in 2003. It was a great victory for the pro-life movement, and numerous lives have been saved as a result, but it hasn’t saved the millions upon millions of babies who are still killed.
Such is the case with unwinding. Connor is a changed man. Initially a selfish kid with a strong survival instinct, he’s the kind of guy that would use another kid as a human shield. Now, he’s different. He’s still got anger issues, and he’s got emotional issues, thanks to his involuntarily receiving a couple of unwind parts following the explosion, but he’s passionate. He’s a fighter. He’s determined to end unwinding. It’s to this end that he runs the Graveyard, running rescue missions and shipping kids to his base, trying to rescue them from the grasp of the Juvenile Authority. Risa sticks with him, still nursing kids despite being in a wheelchair herself. In addition to being a “rebellion leader” of sorts, Connor is also an idealist. I mean that in a good way. He not only wants to end unwinding, he wants to do it the right way. That’s an important distinction, and the one that Shusterman is primarily trying to get across to us in this work.
Enter Mason Michael Starkey, unwanted child and time bomb waiting for an excuse to explode. He’s charismatic, too, which makes him all the more dangerous. He kills (albeit accidentally) a Juvey cop after his parents try to send him away, and eventually ends up being caught by Connor’s crew and taken to the Graveyard. Then comes a meticulous game of chess between the two, with Starkey being determined to unseat Connor as leader. However, he does so by recruiting storks like himself – kids who were dropped off at the doorstep, and only kept for the time they were because of a legal obligation to their adoptive parents.
Then there’s Lev. Lev is apart from Connor and Risa, but he goes through his own growth process. His life is in a pretty tight bind, as his family has disowned him for not going through with his unwinding and the clappers want him dead for not going through with his suicide bombing. His brother gives him a place to stay, but when the clappers attack, that plan goes up in flames. Lev goes through a lot of troubling times, but the most significant is his religious conflicts. His Jewish family believed in unwinding their tenth child, called “tithing.” This threatens to present religion as inherently disturbed and oppressive, but then there’s Pastor Dan. Pastor Dan helped Lev escape in Unwind, and that basically makes him a heretic. That doesn’t, however, make him an atheist. He and Lev both hang onto their faith. Here’s a very telling passage from page 172:
“As for Pastor Dan, he’s a hero to Lev for having the courage to lose his convictions without losing his faith. ‘I still believe in God,’ Pastor Dan told him, ‘Just not a God who condones human tithing.’”
Meanwhile, back at the Graveyard, things aren’t going so well. Connor is easily fooled by Starkey’s cloak of virtue, and so the game proceeds with one of the two players having the false impression that there is no competition. The contrast between these two is clear as the book’s plot unfolds. Starkey wants to liberate unwinds, but he doesn’t care how it gets done. If he does care at all, he cares that it gets done in a more brutal and violent manner. You don’t have to guess where Starkey is on the good guy/bad guy scale. He’s not an antihero like Wolverine, either. He’s a straight up villain who claims to be fighting on the same side. The intention here is clear. It not only matters what you do, it matters in what manner you do it. It not only matters what side you’re on, it matters that you fight with honor. Starkey doesn’t have that. Connor does.
There’s another, more difficult issue that the book raises, though. We also have Cam, a pretty horrifying character in and of himself. Not that he’s a villain; in fact, unlike Starkey, it’s pretty hard to classify Camus Comprix. He’s what’s called a “composite” human being. He’s made up entirely of different parts of unwinds. Just the fact that he exists is truly horrifying. This brings up all other kinds of questions. Not just questions like what his impact on society will be or if it’s the future of America, but questions like does he have a soul? Does he have the same rights as a human being? Is he a human being? Or is he simply a bunch of body parts imitating life? These really are difficult questions. I’ll tell you what my answer is: it matters not how he came into being, it only matters that he exists. The way he came to exist is horrifying, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a human. Does this sound familiar? It should. This is very closely related to the two common “exceptions” for abortion: incest and rape. Should Cam be killed because the way he came to be is horrifying? No. It’s not his fault. He’s not responsible for how he came to be any more than a child conceived of incest or rape is responsible for how he or she came to be.
In the end, the book expands upon the already impressively deep material and explores some difficult questions. While doing so, it accomplishes some incredible character development, one of the biggest strengths of Shusterman’s writing. It’s easily worth the read, and is one of the most thought-provoking pieces you’ll read in modern literature.