“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” Chris Bohjalian’s terrific new novel, could serve as a master class on how to write the thinking reader’s bestseller. Suspenseful, provocative, often terrifying yet compassionate, it pushes a variety of hot buttons — child homelessness, mental illness, nuclear energy — all while creating one of the most memorable teenage protagonists in recent fiction.
Although it is not written or marketed as a young adult novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” should garner a large audience of savvy young readers as well as captivate Bohljalian’s existing army of adult fans.
The narrator, 16-year-old Emily Shepard, is a homeless girl living on the mean streets of Burlington, Vt. Anyone who retains Norman Rockwell visions of the Green Mountain State (where the author lives) may be shaken by Emily’s cold-eyed assessments of it and its largest city: “The homeless of all ages from northern Vermont and New Hampshire and upstate New York wind up there. Always have. It’s a city, which means it has social services. And drugs. And bars. And people — some of whom want to help you and some of whom just want to exploit you.”
A self-described “Queen of the Underachievers,” Emily has serious issues with her parents, her teachers and some of her peers. Still, her laundry list of usual adolescent infractions is balanced by a passion for Emily Dickinson and her own dreams of becoming a poet. Emily’s parents — New York suburbanites who relocated to Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom, several hours north of Burlington — have their own issues, chief among them an escalation of drinking linked in part to the hardships of life in a rural northern community (a condition a friend of mine calls “heating with wine”). Yet Emily never doubts their love for her, and is acutely aware of how lucky she is to live in a beautiful “meadow mansion” in a town where many people live in double-wides or decaying family farmsteads.
When the novel opens, Emily is in 11th grade, cooling her heels in the school cafeteria with a friend, when sirens sound and a teacher comes into the room. There might be a problem at the nuclear plant, the teacher announces. All eyes turn to Emily.
The reason soon becomes clear. Her parents are “Vermont’s power couple” — they both work at a nearby nuclear facility, her mother as the plant’s communications director, her father as chief engineer for operations. The sirens aren’t a drill. After days of heavy rain, a dam has been breached. The plant’s power source has failed. Bucolic Vermont is suddenly the site of a Fukushima-style nuclear meltdown that will leave 19 people dead, Emily’s parents among them, and tens of thousands homeless as a radioactive plume blossoms above the Green Mountains.
Emily joins her classmates in the convoy of school buses that evacuate them, but almost immediately she takes off on her own. Her parents were at work when the meltdown occurred. They’re presumed dead, and the news and social media blame her father for the disaster. “I was devastated. . . . People said crazy mean stuff about both my parents,” she thinks. “That’s why I gave up on the Internet. That’s why I gave up on Facebook and Tumblr.”
Bohjalian beautifully captures Emily’s fragile mental state and the toxic plume of guilt, love, grief, adolescent bravado and terror that accompanies her on her journey from the Northeast Kingdom to Burlington, which has become a refugee camp. There she briefly finds refuge at a homeless shelter, before crashing at the apartment of an Iraq war vet known as Poacher, who gives drugs to homeless kids then pimps them out to long-haul truckers from Montreal. By winter Emily is living in a makeshift igloo on the frozen ice of Lake Champlain, along with Cameron, a 9-year-old runaway she takes under her wing.
“A nuclear meltdown changes people,” Emily muses early in the novel, “and I don’t mean radiation sickness or ‘Twilight Zone’ kinds of mutations in babies.” The triumph of Bohjalian’s novel is that it changes people, too: It’s hard to believe anyone could read this book and not have their worldview irrevocably shaken, much as Emily’s is.
In 2011, Hurricane Irene caused cataclysmic floods in Southern Vermont, cutting off small towns for weeks and imperiling the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant just a few miles from Brattleboro — an area far more populous and closer to the East Coast megalopolis than Bohjalian’s imaginary facility in the Northeast Kingdom. His wrenching descriptions of mass evacuation, bumper-to-bumper traffic, refugee camps and the plight of those suddenly made homeless cuts frighteningly close to the bone in this era of dramatic climate change and mega-storms.
“Sometimes I think I was at my best when the world seemed to be at its worst,” Emily muses. And while Bohjalian provides no simplistic happy ending for his young heroine, he gives us something much more satisfying: a finale that’s moving, hopeful and grounded in the everyday, and as heartbreaking as the inspiration for the novel’s title, revealed in its final pages. I closed this book with regret that it had ended — and relief to know that the Vermont Yankee plant will be shut down by the end of this year.
Hand’s most recent book is “Errantry: Strange Stories.”
CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday. 271 pp. $25.95