Homeless teen Emily Shepard divides her young life on the streets into B.C. and A.C., translating to “Before Cameron” and “After Cameron.” It is not until more than halfway through Chris Bohjalian’s new “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” that we meet the boy who so affects Emily’s life. But a more important before and after predates all this and involves the cataclysmic event that prompted Emily to change her name and hit the road, setting in motion the central action of this compelling tale of loss, resilience, and transformation.
With an engaging, fairly believable narrative voice, Emily recounts her story in journal entry-style with a tough, wryly humorous directness, evoking a “before” life that was less than perfect but manageable. As a 16-year-old high school junior, she revered Emily Dickinson, wrote compulsively, went to school most days, and had a few close friends, though admittedly, she considered herself someone who didn’t always “play well with most other kids in the sandbox.”
Her parents, both employees of a nuclear power plant in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, never quite settled into their “crazy rural” environs after life in New York City. “[M]y parents hated Vermont, drank too much, and sometimes fought like fisher cats.”
When the power plant suffers a catastrophic explosion and meltdown, killing 19 people, including both of Emily’s parents, and forcing thousands to flee their homes, blame falls on her engineer father, with his history of drinking. In an instant, Emily feels devastatingly alone and destined to bear the weight of enormous scrutiny and venom. So as residents of the area take to the road to escape radiation fallout, Emily decides to disappear.
She invents a new identity for herself and makes her way to Burlington, where she pops in and out of shelters and squats in abandoned buildings. She takes up with a group of impulsive street kids and a drug dealer named Poacher. Though the kids smoke dope and do a variety of pills, Poacher is into heroin. “Poacher said heroin was like ‘God kissing your cheek,’ but I felt very small those days and wasn’t sure how I would handle something as big as God getting that close.”
While Emily manages to keep relatively grounded, she is drawn into a grim existence. “Mostly we were just trying to survive, and the sex and the drugs and the robberies were not the product of some rager or keg party gone crazy. It was just how we kept a roof over our heads and tried to stay warm.”
It’s a sad and seemingly dead-end tale until Emily finds the source of her redemption — a 9-year-old boy named Cameron, who has just run away from his fourth foster home. When she first sees him, he is dragging a huge plastic garbage bag containing all his worldly possessions, including a prized red sleeping bag. Cameron stirs Emily’s nurturing instincts — he becomes her family, a reason to rise above. And for nearly two months they live safely in an igloo of trash bags filled with wet leaves. But when Cameron gets sick and ends up in the hospital, Emily’s fragile existence begins to crumble. Feeling like an utter failure, she decides to make a final pilgrimage home, heading into desolation and radiation, to find some sort of closure.
With its youthful protagonist, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” will probably be attractive to readers of YA as well as adults. Bohjalian, who wrote the bestseller “Midwives” as well as several other books, capably finds the humor and pathos in Emily’s first-person narrative, though initially, the tone seems a little too matter of fact and arch for one so young. Perhaps the detachment of self-preservation?
However, by the book’s second half, Emily starts to soften, drawing us in. As she begins to care, to remember good things about her life, a welcome vulnerability creeps in, and as she explores the eerie apocalyptic aftermath of her hometown’s destruction, the novel engenders a page-turning intensity. We start to care, too, fervently hoping that Emily’s story ends with a shred of promise.