Author Chris Bohjalian writes novels about serious subjects. “Midwife,” chosen as an Oprah’s book selection, was about a midwife accused of killing a mother during childbirth. “The Double Bind” told the story of a young woman attacked while riding her bike, and “The Sandcastle Girls” brought us into the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century as seen through the eyes of a female American aide worker.
Bohjalian is particularly adept at writing strong female characters, usually facing some crisis. His latest book, “Close Your Eyes Hold Hands,” continues in that tradition, and is considered by many to be his finest book yet.
Teenager Emily Shepherd lives with her parents in a somewhat remote area of Vermont. Her father is an engineer at a nuclear power plant, and her mother is the public relations officer for the plant.
Emily is smart, but according to her teachers, she doesn’t apply herself. She loves the poet Emily Dickinson, and feels a kinship with the author who shares her first name.
Her relationship with her parents is somewhat strained. Emily’s parents drink and fight a lot. Emily thinks her mother is unhappy living in Vermont, and that causes much of the strain.
One day, while Emily is at school, the emergency sirens go off. The teachers seem more concerned than usual, and the students are put on buses and moved out of town.
There was an explosion at the power plant, and 17 people died. Emily can’t get a hold of her parents and fears them dead. News stations are reporting that Emily’s father is being blamed for the explosion, accused of being drunk on the job.
Emily panics and runs away. In the confusion of the situation, she is able to leave relatively unnoticed. Her plan to go home is thwarted, as traffic is snarled with everyone trying to get out of the area to safety.
The story is told by Emily, and although she promises to tell the story chronologically, she jumps around. It appears that we are reading Emily’s writings in a journal, much like the ones that Emily Dickinson kept.
Emily ends up in Burlington shelter, and tells people she is from upstate New York and her name is Abby Bliss. She heard people saying such horrible things about her parents, she feared if people knew who she was, she would be treated badly, as she found out in a 7-11 when she told a cop her name and people nearly rioted.
After she leaves the shelter, she lives in an apartment with other runaways and an Iraq war vet, who gives the kids drugs and sends them out to prostitute themselves at a truck stop when they need money for more drugs.
Emily makes friends with one girl, who teaches her how to cut herself. She doesn’t want to do it, but the compulsion is too much for her. When her friend leaves because her parents have found her, Emily leaves, too.
She makes an igloo of frozen ice and garbage bags to live in, and meets Cameron, a 9-year-old runaway. Emily takes Cameron under her wing, and vows to protect him. He is an orphan, like her, and ran away from his last foster home because he was beaten.
Taking care of Cameron gives Emily a purpose. She feeds him, takes him to the library to read, gets him a flu shot at the drugstore and buys him a skateboard, the only thing he wants.
The life of a homeless teen caring for a young boy is incredibly difficult, and Bohjalian doesn’t shy away from the ugliness. The thing that struck me most was the sheer exhaustion of just getting through the day. It’s awful enough for an adult, but for two children, it’s just unfathomable.
The title “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” comes from words spoken by a teacher or police officer to the children at Newtown school where 21 children were murdered in 2012. Emily thinks of those words when she decides to go to the Exclusion Zone, the new name for the area around her home.
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is a heartbreaking novel, beautifully written by Mr. Bohjalian. He creates an unforgettable character in Emily Shepherd — perhaps his best yet. He said that his own teenage daughter helped him find Emily’s voice, and he brings her to vivid life on the pages. Weeks after finishing this book, I find myself still thinking and worrying about Emily and Cameron.
My review of Chris Bohjalian's The Light In The Ruins is here.