A Light at the End of the Tunnel: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The artistic and financial success of Pixar's Wall-E (see my review of June 28 here), raises hope that the October 10 release of Walden Media's The City of Ember, based on Jean DuPrau's notable post-apocalyptic novel The City of Ember will offer an suspenseful and thought-provoking version of this notable novel for middle readers. With its dark, atmospheric setting and a rip-roaring quest for its young teen protagonists, this is a book which has already amassed a following and which is ideal in plot, setting, characters, and theme for the upcoming movie's intended audience. Now is a great time to put this book into the hands of middle grade readers. They'll enjoy being in the know when the the movie comes out, and it's a great book anytime for intelligent kids who love a great story with a meaningful theme.
A human time capsule, the City of Ember has been constructed deep underground with extensive supplies and a massive hydroelectric generator to maintain a remnant of humankind until Earth is habitable again. The Builders of Ember have provided a mechanized lockbox guarded by the city's mayors and set to open and reveal instructions for a return to earth's surface, presumed to be habitable again after 200 years. When a corrupt mayor hides the box at home and dies before he can pass it on, the means of escape are lost to the future descendants of Ember.
Many years later Ember's future is as dark as its dimly-lit landscape. Light bulbs are hoarded. Food supplies are nearly depleted, and only the very old can recall delicacies like canned pineapple and peaches. The ancient water pipes are constantly leaking or filling with sediment, and the generator which provides for the giant floodlights outside and home lighting inside is failing, with longer and longer blackouts terrorizing the inhabitants. A people with little history and scant science, the citizens of Ember have no one to turn to except their elders' stories and their corrupt officials' self-protective lies.
Twelve-year-old Lina and Doon, new workers just graduated from their six years of public education, feel the threat more than most. Doon secretly trades work assignments with Lina, giving up the coveted job of runner/messenger to become a pipeworks technician, hoping that he can gain the engineering skills to save his city from its approaching demise. A thoughtful girl whose drawings are haunted by visions of a light-filled city under a blue sky, Lina delivers messages from which she learns that things are far worse than Ember's rulers dare reveal.
Then Lina's failing grandmother, obsessed with finding an object that her dying great-grandfather, a mayor of Ember, spoke of as lost on his deathbed, discovers a strange mechanical box with a framented message inside. Lina and Doon decipher enough of the puzzling text to realize that it is the key to the secret way out of Ember, the Instructions for Egress left by the Builders of Ember. The decoded instructions allow them to make a harrowing passage down Ember's underground river to the surface of Earth. Passing on the secret Instructions to the people of Ember, they face life above ground in a world which they could not have imagined.
DuPrau's post-apocalytic tale of Earth's survivors is a spellbinding account of the endpoint of the decline of civilized society. Horrible mistakes have obviously been made in the past which may yet doom the few remaining. Still, intelligence, love, strength of spirit, and hope remain strong in humankind. This is an absorbing and inspiring read for young people, one that will provoke thought as they eagerly race through the suspenseful tale.
The City of Ember is followed by its sequel The People of the Spark and a related prequel, The Prophet of Yonwood. The fourth companion book, The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember (Books of Ember), is set for publication on August 26.
Labels: Science Fiction (Grades 4-9)