When 11th-grader Emily Shepard says her world is ending, she’s not simply being a dramatic teenager. She’s alone, living in the shadowy aftermath of the fictional Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant meltdown, located in Vermont’s picturesque Northeast Kingdom.
Emily’s father, an alcoholic who was reportedly drunk on the job, is responsible for the deadly disaster. Both of Emily’s parents are presumed to be among the fatalities. With her dead father the target of the community’s vitriol, Emily runs away to reinvent herself as Abby Bliss, a new identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.
Life, however, is anything but blissful. Turning to drugs and prostitution, Emily/Abby becomes homeless, living in an igloo-like abode formed from trash bags filled with wet leaves.
In a Q&A page on his website devoted to “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” his latest novel, author Chris Bohjalian states that the trash igloo is based on his experiences of being involved with a youth and family services organization and getting to know some of Vermont’s at-risk teens who lived in such structures.
Despite being homeless, Emily becomes a maternal figure to Cameron, another destitute child who takes up residence with her in her makeshift igloo.
Before making an appearance in the story, Cameron’s significance in Emily’s life is heavily alluded to throughout the first half of “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.” As the narrator of the novel, Emily divides her tale into B.C. and A.C. sections (for “Before Cameron” and “After Cameron”).
This seems a bit heavy-handed, for when the much-mentioned C. actually appears and their quasi-mother/child relationship unfolds, it feels deflated compared to the build-up given. We expect a bit more, perhaps.
Still, this is forgivable on Mr. Bohjalian’s part because the character of Emily is so strong. “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is told in flashback from an undetermined time as if Emily is having a one-on-one conversation with the reader, peppered with the teenage vernacular of “whatevers” and “reallys.”
Indeed, Emily’s character is written so well and her story so absorbing (this is very much a read-in-one-or-two-sittings type of book) that it is easy to forget you’re actually reading.
The title of the book comes the remarks of police officers to schoolchildren during the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, which are referenced in the novel. It’s possible to view “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” as sounding an alarm on the many disasters facing this generation: teenage homelessness, prostitution and sex trafficking, drug addiction, environmental and energy crises, school shootings, absentee parents. Like the Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant, our world itself can seem in a perpetual state of meltdown.
“I find myself making connections between words that are usually completely ridiculous — the connections, that is. I do this a lot with Emily Dickinson’s poems.
“I can wade grief,
“Whole pools of it, —
“You’d think it would be grief that would be the link for me or “grief” would be the word I would fixate on. Nope. That would be way too normal. It’s “pools.” I associate it with the spent fuel pools at nuclear plants. That’s where you have serious radioactivity. And then I imagine the pools of water that must have been flooding Cape Abenaki, first in the hours before the explosion and then after.”
While “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is a sad novel (and one that brings back the fear and uncertainty associated with the memories of those who, like me, remember the Three Mile Island disaster of 35 years ago), it reminds us of our innate need for connection.
“Close your eyes, hold hands might, if you didn’t know the truth, sound life-affirming. ... The problem? I could close my eyes all I wanted, but I still had no one to hold my hand.”
We all need someone to hold our hand. Without that person, our world is broken.