This is my next read-through, at the request of the Kid, who was compelled to read in it high school. This was one of the required texts in one of his English classes.
It purports to be a 'fair and balanced' response to the battle between Pro-Choice Americans and 'Pro-Life' Americans. In response to the 'Heartland War," the epigraph tells us, a 'Bill of Life' was passed.
To end the war, a set of constitutional amendments known as “The Bill of Life” was passed. It satisfied both the Pro-life and the Pro-choice armies.
The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.
However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child . .
We are one page into this text and I am already saying Oh My God.
The 'Bill of Life' only makes sense if we assume (as apparently Shusterman did) that what pro-choice people really want to do is kill children.
Which, yeah, no. That's not what pro-choice people want, at all. They want the choice to be pregnant or not to be pregnant. And they want the risks and costs of the decision to be pregnant to be up to those who after all bear the physical dangers and costs of pregnancy. This 'Bill of Life' would do nothing about that.
Also, for fuck's sake, what "Pro-Life" person would be happy with killing children at 13? Even as annoying as most 13 year olds are. That's just beyond stupid.
Shusterman says people accept this because the 13 year olds don't 'really' die. Their body-parts and organs are transplanted into other people, so 'really' the children continue to live.
Again, in what universe would anyone find this argument acceptable?
But that's our premise. This novel already has a D- rating from me.
We meet Connor, who has discovered that his parents have sold him to the Unwinding... corporation? I don't know. It's not clear, at least so far, who runs the Unwinds.
Connor has been a trouble-making kid and young teen. He acted badly and mouthed off and refused to do well in school, even though he knew kids who acted that way were likely to be sold as Unwinds. Connor's kind of stupid, in other words, and terrible at planning ahead. True, he is thirteen. But still.
His parents are selling him off and using the money to go to Disneyworld with his younger, better behaved sibling. I'll admit I found this detail funny. I'm not sure Shusterman wanted us too, though.
Connor and his girlfriend decide to run away, except the girlfriend bails at the last minute.
Sulky, Conner runs on his own. He gets a lift from a sympathetic truck driver, who lost an arm in some early accident and now has an Unwind arm. The truck driver says the arm still had part of the dead teen's skills and personality (it can do card tricks) so he feels bad. That's why he helps.
Muscle memory is a thing, but I don't think it works like this. But whatever.
Just before they take off, Connor sees another teen get taken by the Unwind Police -- he was trying to run away too. But he draws attention away from Connor, in his noble way, and so Connor escapes in the truck.
He takes his phone with him, though. After his dad rats him out (boy, parents really hate their kid in this future world, I guess that's just how pro-choice people are, right?) the police track the phone, and the truck gets stopped.
I mean, this is realistic -- kids and their phones, amirite? -- but Connor has to be pretty stupid not to know he can be tracked by his phone.
The Unwind police are about to arrest him when Connor leaps the divide between two sides of the interstate (what?) and flees. At this point, between Connor's lack of foresight and his idiotic behavior, I'm really wondering if being Unwound wasn't his best possible future.
A car on the other side almost hits him, and crashes instead. Inside is a kid in white -- another Unwind! Connor pulls him from the wreck and they run off together.
We meet another future Unwind, Risa. She's an orphan, living in Ohio State Home 23, and has been training in the orphanage to be a pianist. But she's just not quite good enough.
A little world-building here. Since contraception and abortion are now illegal, lots of parents surrender their extra kids at birth to the state. Some are adopted (storked, this is called). The rest end up in state custody, where they have to earn their right to survive past 13.
Risa hasn't. She's good at music, but not excellent. And 5% of the kids in the home have to be Unwound every year. This year, she's one of that 5%. She offers to change tracks -- she doesn't have to be a musician! She'll join the military instead!
Too late, her administrators tell her cheerily. Off she goes.
In the transport, she meets another Unwind, who seems happy about it. He knows he's a useless human being, he says, but this way part of him will go on to do something useful.
On the one hand, this makes sense -- the propaganda that must be fed to the kids in the home (excel or be unwound) might actual create this sort of resignation.
On the other hand, wow.
Then the bus they're in crashes into the pile-up Connor created by jumping across the interstate barrier, and Risa escapes.
And...here's the creepiest chapter yet.
We meet a religious family. In this world, the 'Pro-Life' people now apparently make a religion out of bearing a lot of kids and 'tithing' one out of ten to the Unwind Centers. Apparently, all religious families do this now -- they have a ton of kids and designate one or more of them as their 'tithe.'
I'm guess for the money? I don't know. This doesn't make any sense. I don't care how much you believe in God, the notion that you'll send one out of ten kids to be slaughtered and call that 'Pro-Life' seems....
I was going to say unlikely, but then I remember the family in my neighborhood that was famous for not believing in birth control. They had twelve kids, which they could not afford (who can afford 12 kids?) and the three oldest joined the military in order to send money back and help the rest.
I mean, I don't know that those three died or even suffered injuries. But this was the era of the Vietnam war, so, yeah, kind of a tithe.
Lev is the tithe from his family. He's been raised from birth with the understanding that he's a special child, a sacrifice to God. Now that he's 13, and it's time to be Unwound, he's a little uncertain.
His preacher tells him that this is what God wants, and that he's the best of all his siblings, and that God wants the best. We find out that several of Lev's siblings are adopted (storked, as the novel puts it), because after all good Pro-life families all adopt lots of kids. And then send one of their own kids off to be Unwound.
Nevertheless, Lev is convinced, at least for now.
Lev, of course, is the kid that Connor rescues from the car.
Lev objects to Connor's attempt to rescue him -- he's a tithe, God wants him to do this -- but the Unwind Cops are shooting at the three of them (Connor, Risa, and Lev) and Lev gets knocked out.
So far this book fails the how-people-act test.
I'm not saying people don't surrender one or more children to help the other children in the family -- as I noted, a family in our neighborhood did just that. And I'm sure we can all think of families in which the oldest child works at terrible jobs to give the younger children a better advantage.
But there's a wide difference between that and selling your child to have its organs and other parts harvested.
Schusterman might think there's a parallel here, with some parents having abortions -- stopping a pregnancy because they can't afford another child, because that expense would harm the future of their family, including their already existing children.
Or someone at 16 having an abortion in order to finish school, giving themselves and their future children a better life.
Maybe that's the metaphor he's working with.
But there's a big difference between an abortion and killing your 13 year old.
Pretending this is exactly the same thing, either morally or ethically, is not just nonsense, it's the vile sort of lie we hear from 'Pro-life' people all the time. A blastocyst is the exact same thing as a toddler, so killing one is the same as killing the other.
No one believes that, not really. Or if they do, they're not someone I'd trust with a child anyway.
Also, Schusterman is ignoring the actual reason many people have abortions -- they don't want to be pregnant. Maybe they just don't want to be pregnant now; maybe they never want to be pregnant.
This is typical of the 'pro-life' crowd, obviously. Pregnancy isn't a disease! they declare. Childbirth is natural, they declare. It's only nine months, after all, and if you don't want they baby, why, you can just let some good Christian family adopt it.
Pregnancy kills over 700 people in America a year, and injures many, many others.
Pregnancy is a debilitating and miserable experience.
Yes, I know, some people love being pregnant. But for most of us, no, it's nausea and swelling feet and agonizing pain in our bones and ligaments, it's heart burn, it's the inability to take medication, some of which is vital for our health, it's a condition that causes permanent and sometimes debilitating changes to our bodies. It's not 'just nine months' of no big deal, and it's not over when we deliver, either.
And pregnancy creates a child which we are responsible for, forever. Giving that child up for adoption may seem easy to someone who had never birthed a child, but I could no more have given my child away than I could have sliced out my liver. It would have felt exactly the same.
The whole premise of this book, frankly, is something that only a person who could never be pregnant would have thought made any sense at all.
I'm going to keep reading, but jeez.