Book Report: The City of Ember
4 June 2005, 3:21 PM
Usually, I accept that YA specfic books are going to have some annoying elements, and I can simply accept that and enjoy the book anyway, or at least enjoy the book whilst griping. The problem, I think, in the case of The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, is that I read Farah Mendlesohn’s note about the book before reading the book. The note in question is called Very Stupid Monkeys, and it was just the beginning of a discussion about what Ms. Mendolsohn does and does not like about science fiction and fantasy for children and teenagers. Ember came to signify much that Ms. Mendolsohn dislikes, and also, perhaps more importantly, the lack of those things she specifically likes.
And, you know, as I read the book, I knew what she meant. This is a book about fundamentally stupid and incurious people. The setup is annoying in that it only makes sense if you work backward from the world that is set up. People know things they have no business knowing, and are ignorant of things that should be obvious to them, and do things that are totally out of their pattern of behaviour, just so that plot points can be forwarded, and they generally do their stuff to the (accidental) benefit of our young hero and heroine, who ultimately are carried off on the current of their own imbecile passivity. In fact, they are constantly rewarded for ... vague interest in the welfare of the town. Oops! Saved the world, there. I meant to do that.
On the other hand, the uselessly reactive main characters are, actually, quite likeable. The writing is smooth, the book goes quickly, and on the whole, if you don’t get too cranky, there’s a lot to like. And, you know, the image of a subterranean world entirely dependent on a two-hundred-year old generator and a cache of tinned food that is just about to run out is quite affecting. Yes, it seems ... odd that despite experimentation, nobody ever invented candles, or oil lamps, or pitch torches, much less battery- or crank-operated lamps. But the slowly increasing frequency and duration of blackouts, which are absolute and total, is a great image, and the reaction of the town is interesting (if not, you know, plausible).
Oh, and I hate to be all whatsit, but you know at the end when Our Heroes have made their way to the World Above, and they just happen to come across a cave with a hole in the ground that looks down on the City of Ember? Isn’t that a problem? You know, a problem with the original setup? No?
Ah, well, there it is.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,