Sunday, July 8, 2007

The City of Ember

DuPrau, Jeanne. (2003). The City of Ember. New York: Random House. ISBN 0375822747.

In a desperate attempt to save humanity, two builders construct a city in which to house a large group of people for a span of 200 years—a self-sufficient city—and leaves a set of “Instructions” on how to exit the city in a time-locked box with the Mayor. It’s the Mayor’s job to explain and pass the box on to her successor, which she does. But by the time the seventh Mayor comes along, he is desperate to open the box—having been stricken by a mysterious “coughing disease,” and hoping the box will hold some secret cure. Before he has the chance to pass on the secret, he dies and the time-locked box ends up in the back of a closet until one day, unbeknownst to anyone, the lock “quietly clicks open.”

Flash forward another fifty or so years:
Lina and Doon are twelve year old children who, having finished their Last Day of school in the city of Ember are awaiting their “assignments” to work for the city. When they both get jobs they hate, they decide to trade—Lina getting her desperately coveted position of Messenger and Doon taking Lina’s assignment of “Pipeworks Laborer” so that he can be closer to the city’s underground generator. Doon is concerned about the city’s constant electrical blackouts—the lights being the city’s only source of illumination—and has “ideas” on how to prevent them.

The failing generator is not the only problem in the city. Supplies are running low. Canned foods such as pineapple, applesauce and peaches are mythical children’s stories of the past, while the greenhouse workers struggle to keep up with the city’s needs. There are rumors of something beyond the city, beyond the dark Unknown Regions, but no one is brave enough—or allowed—to venture there.

One day, Lina finds her little sister Poppy chewing on a piece of paper that seems to have come from a strange locked box she has found. Loving puzzles, Lina sets about trying to decipher the document. She soon realizes that the paper may be the “Instructions” on how to get out of Ember and she and her friend Doon begin to investigate. In the mean time, they discover that the Mayor is hoarding a secret cache of supplies and is an accessory to a black marketer. They decide it is time to find the way out of Ember—to find help. They write a note to tell where they are going, hoping they’ll be long gone before their plot is discovered.

After a terrifying river ride and a steep climb, Lina, Doon and Poppy find a strange world of Light—they’re SAVED! But caring for the citizens of their lost city, they go back and throw a bundle—a note tied to a rock—down to the city of Ember:

Dear People of Ember,
We came down the river from the Pipeworks and found the way to another place. It is green here and very big. Light comes from the sky. You must follow the instructions in this message and come on the river. Bring food with you. Come as quickly as you can.
Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow

When I first started reading this book, it reminded me so much of The Giver—the sequestered community, the ceremony of community-assigned roles, the disappointment at assignment—I almost put it down, tempted to call DuPrau a wanna-be. However, the plot filled with mystery and intrigue was too strong for me to let go, especially since the reader is privy to information the citizens of Ember do not know—that it is an underground city and that their situation is the result of the failings of a madman, the seventh mayor. The whole time, I as a reader wanted to jump into the story and scream a the citizens not to be afraid. To be brave and to venture further into the Unknown Regions. Even after Lina and Doon begin to have suspicions about the river being the way out, they sit on their secret for so long I wanted to throttle them.

This frustration-inducing procrastination (motivation by caution and skepticism, of course) only heightened the tension and suspense—and in the meantime, we got to see just how dire the situation was becoming… by discovering that the current Mayor was corrupt and that the mechanics entrusted with the daily running of the generators did not only not understand how the machine worked but didn’t know how to fix it either.

DuPrau is skilful in her use of language—she keeps it simple but alludes to traditions and foreign expression just enough to make us believe in a civilization which because it has been isolated, hasn’t changed much in over 200 years, but which does have its own history.

The characters are simple and somewhat na├»ve, but that only makes the story even more realistic because having lived and procreated amongst themselves, wouldn’t they start to suffer both from genetic drift and from “sheltered child” syndrome (where a lack of exposure to other cultures results in a child-like mentality)?

The story was very exciting to me because I grew up in the mountain wilderness of Arkansas. I lived in my grandparents’ house where we had no electricity, no running water and no telephone. I played in the woods, splashing half-naked in our creek, pretending to be a member of a lost and now indigenous civilization. So, reading books like The City of Ember just calls back all those emotions and imaginary visions of my childhood. That is my perspective as an adult.

I can see how a young adult might be drawn to this story (even if it is a little young) because almost all teens and pre-teens feel trapped by their reality and would LOVE to discover that the future of civilization depended on their “finding a way out” of their imprisoned existence.

Reviews of The City of Ember (via

From School Library Journal
Grade 4-7–This truly superb audio recording of the novel by Jeane DuPrau (Random, 2003) takes place in the dark city of Ember, a decaying place with no natural light surrounded by the vast Unknown. Although ancestors had arranged for information on leaving Ember to be made available after the inhabitants have spent 200 years there, a corrupt mayor lost the information many years before the novel begins. Two hundred and forty-one years later, Ember's electrical lighting frequently fails, supplies are dwindling, and the populace is growing increasingly frightened. Twelve-year-old Doon and his acquaintance Lina are intent on finding a way to save Ember. After Lina finds a mysterious and fragmented paper titled "Instructions for Egress," they think they have a way out. Can they escape from the villainous mayor and his soldiers? Can they figure out the missing letters and words in the message? Do they find their way out of Ember and up to a post-apocalyptic Earth?

From Booklist
Gr. 5-7. ...Life in this postholocaust city is well limned--the frequent blackouts, the food shortage, the public panic, the search for answers, and the actions of the powerful, who are taking selfish advantage of the situation. Readers will relate to Lina and Doon's resourcefulness and courage in the face of ominous odds.

Lonestar Reading List
ALA Notable Children's Award

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