Phoenix Rising By Karen Hesse

You can’t see radiation or smell it or feel it. Could a mask stop it so easily?

A few years ago I noted that teen romances with a nuclear power plant meltdown-theme represented a small subset of the genre; I imagine rarer still are nuclear power plant meltdown teen romances by Newbery Medal-wining authors that seem to be inspired in equal parts by The Diary of Anne Frank and Lurlene McDaniel’s dead-boyfriend epics.

The Plot: Narrated by 13 year old Nyle Sumner, the novel opens a week after a catastrophic reactor meltdown at the Cookshire nuclear power plant in southern Vermont (loosely based on the now-decommissioned Vermont Yankee and Yankee-Rowe plants on the Vermont-Massachusetts border).  Far north near Quebec border, the Sumner family farm has escaped the immediate effects of the radiation that have left much of New England uninhabitable.

Nyle lives on the sheep farm with her Grandmother, having been abandoned by her father when her mother received a terminal cancer diagnosis when Nyle was six. Five years later her grandfather also died, leaving the back-breaking work of running the farm to Nyle and her grandmother, and leaving Nyle extremely wary about forging any close relationships.

So Nyle is unhappy when her Grandmother announces that they’ll be taking two refugees from the southern part of the state, a mother and son who have been turned out of the over-crowded hospital after the doctors did all they could for their radiation sickness. The Trents’ residency at the Sumner farm is to be kept a secret, since the community fears radioactive contamination; moreover, the late Mr. Trent was an executive at the power plant, making them the most non grata of personas.

Although her grandmother initially promises Nyle that she won’t have to have anything to do with the sick and dying family in the spare bedroom, she can’t keep her curiosity at bay, and soon is spending all of her free time reading aloud to 15 year old-Ezra, who miraculously begins to regain his strength and recover.

But Nyle’s growing feelings for Ezra, as well as having to keep the secret of his existence, strain her relationship with Muncie Harris, her de facto BFF and the “runty” daughter of her grandmother’s tenants, whose parents are paranoid that Muncie could be more susceptible to radiation sickness.

Not anything like the dystopian fantasy the plot suggests, the book is at its best in describing the day to day details of a rural life that already wasn’t easy, and is now even more difficult in the wake of the disaster. When a neighbor’s dog kills one of the Sumner sheep, Nyle goes over in her mind the steps she has to take with the community’s sole elected official to be compensated for the loss:

Whenever we had a sheep kill, Red would come out to the farm, take a look at the evidence. If a dog, and not some coyote, had done the killing, the town paid us for our loss. Usually dogs went for the rear first, coyotes for the throat. Considering the condition of the sheep and the bloody mess on Tyrus’s face, the dog’s guilt would not be hard to prove.

Because of their remote location (too far even for broadcast or cable TV), Nyle only hears accounts of the devastation from the news broadcasts that her social studies teacher dutifully tapes and shows to his class every morning.

As Christmas approaches, the Sumners take Muncie to the nearest town to do some shopping, and Nyle is struck by how normal life seems, until she encounters a bank of television sets at the local Radio Shack:

They ran a film clip showing one side of the Cookshire plant blown open. A blackened, ragged hole filled the screens. Twisted chunks of debris spewed across the ground. Helicopters passed above with monitoring equipment, measuring the radiation release from the containment building.

The next film showed New Hampshire traffic jams. People fought, children hid under blankets in the back seats of abandoned cars. We’d seen that clip at school.

Then they panned across stretches of land, showing aerial views of evacuated cities and towns: mile upon mile empty of life. Everything looked perfectly normal, just empty. An orange wind sock flapped above the unplowed runways at Logan Airport. The streets of Boston’s business district stood empty.

The story is less effective when fleshing out the Trents’ story: lots of details are introduced and just left hanging, such as Mrs. Trent mentioning in passing that her parents had never met their grandson because they were mad at her for marrying a non-Jew. And while she is supposed to be an upper-class Bostonian, her speech still comes off as weirdly affected:

“He is worse,” she said. “He has not taken any food in over a day. On the nightstand is a cloth and a bowl of sweetened water. Could you touch some to his lips while you are with him?”

Also left tantalizing unexplored is the community’s engagement with the federal government after the disaster. It is mentioned in passing that Nyle’s uncle’s dairy farm was technically in the “safe zone”, but something doesn’t seem quite right with that assessment:

The government had dishonored Uncle Lemmy. Said he was trying to collect on other people’s misfortunes. Trying to ride the coattails of the accident. Told him he should be ashamed with so much genuine suffering and loss. That there was nothing wrong with his farm.

But if what the government said was true, why had Uncle Lemmy destroyed a herd of prize Holsteins? Why was my cousin Bethany in a hospital bed in the living room, dying of radiation poisoning?

Ezra eventually becomes well enough to leave the house, and even begin attending school. He also takes a keen interest in sheep farming, admiring in his perception that it offers a self-sufficient way of life:

“We owed everything we had to Cookshire. We had a great life, Nyle. Lots of money, lots of things.” Ezra’s laugh rasped with sarcasm. “Where are all those things now?”

But Nyle is practical, pointing out that they were dependent on the outside world for a market for the wool, milk, cheese and meat the farm produces, and their future is uncertain.

The story abruptly switches gears in the final chapters, going into full-on Lurlene McDaniel mode as Nyle and Ezra develop feelings for each other, with the Trents’ eminent departure constantly looming. When Nyle has to write a letter to a historical figure that changed her life as part of a school assignment (she chooses Anne Frank) Ezra decides to do the assignment as well, addressing his letter to Nyle and confessing his feelings for her.

And then they have a run-in with the school bully (and Sumners’ neighbor) who has correctly deduced that Ezra is a “mutant” from the disaster zone. When they get into a physical fight, Ezra is rushed to the hospital, bleeding uncontrollably, where it is revealed that he’s been suffering from leukemia the whole time and he bids a teary death-bed farewell to Nyle. The end.

Meta! Department: The book that Nyle reads aloud to Ezra during his recovery is Slake’s Limbo, which is plugged so incessantly I started to wonder if the author was getting paid for product placement.

Reminder! I’ve added a bunch of new descriptions to the Name That Book page, be sure to check it out and see if you can help find a
dimly-remembered title!

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4 Responses to Phoenix Rising By Karen Hesse

  1. Susan says:

    Hmmm, Chris Bohjalian seems to have used some of these same themes a few years ago in “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.” Teenage girl in Vermont becomes homeless due to nuclear plant meltdown, and feels like she has to hide her identity because her parents were executives there. But in reverse, the plant is in the remote area near Canada, and she sneaks off to the more populated city of Burlington.

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