Wednesday, February 6, 2013

City of Ember

Titles:  City of Ember; People of Sparks; Prophet of Yonwood; Diamond of Darkhold

Author:  Jeanne DuPrau  (pronounce "Jean DuPro")

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  Middle School Readers

For this review I read City of Ember and Diamond of Darkhold.  As is often the case, sequels have trouble maintaining the creativity and energy of the original.

I found City of Ember to be an engaging adventure accompanied by a word puzzle to captivate thoughtful readers even more completely.  DuPrau has created an interesting setting and society, as citizens of Ember been underground in their self-sufficient city for as long as any of them can remember.  Unfortunately, their food stores and power systems are beginning to crumble, and as life becomes more difficult, two young teens, Doon and Lina, need to do more than just solve a mystery to save their city.

If this sounds a bit apocalyptic, it's because it is.  In a more gentle tone than Hunger Games, but along the lines of Gregor the Overlander, DuPrau has the reader consider the big questions of life and human conscience.

Here are some relevant, interesting quotes:

"The citizens of Ember may not have luxuries, but the foresight of the Builders, who filled the store rooms at the beginning of time, has ensured that they will always have enough, and enough is all a person of wisdom needs."

"Something in this seed knows how to make a bean plant.  How does it know that?  It knows because it has life in it.  But where does life come from?  What is life?"

"They say the Builders made the city.  But who made the Builders?  Who made us?  I think the answer must be somewhere outside of Ember."

"There's so much darkness in Ember, Lina.  It's not just outside, it's inside us, too.  Everyone has some darkness inside.  It's like a hungry creature.  It wants and wants and wants with a terrible power.  And the more you give it, the bigger and hungrier it gets."

There are sad, dark moments in Ember.  Lina's parents have died, and Granny dies, too.  Lina and Doon are encouraged by Doon's supportive father and some other adults, but must also make difficult choices on their own.

DuPrau seems to mix Eastern and Western philosophies.  For instance, there is a reasonably strong sense of right and wrong.  Ethics, "fairness," and conscience are all explored.  She is right to acknowledge the darkness in each one of us, but would she agree with the doctrines of total depravity and original sin?  Hmmm, hard to say.  Then there is the unanswered question of a benevolent creator.  A group of citizens known as Believers seem to be happy, worshipful and prayerful, but then again, no one seems to know exactly who or what they praise.  This may not be a slam against religion so much as it is DuPrau keeping her options open.

In the 4th book, Diamond of Darkhold, Lina and Doon make their way back to Ember on a sort of reconnaissance mission.  Again, readers will enjoy unraveling word mysteries as the characters encounter foreign objects easily familiar to us.  For instance, would the people of Ember and Sparks be most helped by a jewel?  or a joule?!

There are a few grim thoughts when the characters realize they may encounter dead bodies on their return.  An interesting gypsy/rebel family is encountered which seems to be more dangerous or violent than preceding books.  As usual in science fiction sequels, the plot becomes a little hard to sustain, a little less believable.  (How can the city of Sparks have airplanes, but not electricity?)  But middleschoolers will find the plot satisfying.

DuPrau continues to explore various aspects of a mature life:

"Why are there so many hard and dangerous things in the world?  Lina once asked Dr. Hester, but the doctor only shrugged:  It gives us useful work.  There are always going to be people who need help."

"Lina could not understand why this world, which was so full of beauty and wonder, had to also be so full of horrors."

"A person who thought he knew everything simply didn't understand how much there was to know."

Parents may also want to know that some sort of aspect of extra-terrestrial life hinted at in book 2 or 3 and referenced in book 4.  But I didn't make the complete connection since I only read books 1 and 4.

In sum, I liked these books by DuPrau.  There's something unique and clever about them.  Yes, they are a subtle introduction to dystopic literature, but I don't really mind that.  The fact is, life does get hard and our kids need to see how people handle adversity in life.  DuPrau does a nice job of exploring these difficulties.  She at least takes us to the problem, if she somewhat unable to offer the most hopeful solution.

This is why it's so important to talk with our kids about what they're reading.  We need to present our belief system as it relates to problems and stories presented by these modern authors (teachers, professors).  Post-modernism, as a life philosophy, is much better at asking questions than answering them!  As Doon's father says at the end:

"I don't there is such a thing as an easy life.  There's always going to be hard work and there will always be misfortunes we can't control lurking out at the edges--storms, sickness, wolves.  But there is such a thing as a good life, and I think we have it here."

While this is true on earth, Christians understand Christ offers something much more satisfying in the end, as well as along the way.

(The City of Ember is also a PG movie I have not yet seen.  It received a mostly positive review on Plugged-In, which noted Walden Media had showed "restraint" in production--a rarity in Hollywood.)

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