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Reading Between the Wines: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Posted Jan 28 2013 11:32am

One of my goals for 2013 – and, more specifically, for when I moved to Arizona – was to start an in-person book club. In my opinion, chatting about books is the perfect way to get to know someone. You have an instant ice breaker, and you also get to learn something about that person through the way they interpreted the book’s themes, characters and overall message.

When Nicole mentioned that she had also always wanted to start a book club, it was a done deal. The two of us have spent the past few months putting the pieces together, plotting the ins and outs of our meetings, selecting the first month’s book and forming our group. Last night was our inaugural meeting, which happened to be at my house. I was so excited – and nervous – to host everyone, but it was a blast. And as a bonus, we all agreed on our official club name…

Reading Between the Wines!!


From left to right there’s me, Nicole , Sheena, Emily , Crystal, Ari and Shanley. The club isn’t limited to a specific genre – any book is a possibility for any given month. At each meeting, the next month’s hostess brings three options that are voted on by the entire group, ensuring that everyone gets a say in what we read.  Nicole and I selected the book for the first month, however, and we decided on a young adult selection called Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

Unwind image

“In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world. The problem is people who think it is.” -Neal Shusterman, Unwind

In Short

This book is controversial, to say the least. We wanted to get people talking at our first meeting, and the subject matter of Unwind certainly fits the bill. As a dystopian novel set in the future, the book opens on life after a Second Civil War in the United States. The two sides fought over an issue that is highly relevant in society today: pro-life versus pro-choice. Ultimately, the armies came to an agreement and created the Bill of Life, which states that human life cannot be touched from conception until the age of thirteen. Then, as a compromise, parents can decide to have their children “unwound” at any time between the ages of thirteen and eighteen.

To be unwound means that the child’s life does not technically end – instead, every part of the child’s body (literally) is transplanted into various recipients. Since every organ, limb and drop of blood is still used, society is comforted by the idea that this is not sentencing the child to death – though whether the reader agrees with that sentiment or not is obviously debatable! Still, at the book’s open, it’s very common practice to have troubled or unwanted teenagers sent to “harvest camps” to be unwound. It’s seen as normal and accepted by everyone.

I know. It’s kind of crazy, right? But Unwind is a great example of a book that addresses hot button issues in a way that isn’t polarizing or one-sided. Without putting words into Neal Shusterman’s mouth, I feel as though one of the many reasons he decided to write this book is that it deals with the question of how much moral judgment – our own personal belief systems – should play a role in creating and enforcing civil law. And I respected the fact that he doesn’t attempt to answer that question – he just tells a story. Which is why I think that regardless of how a person feels about this subject, the book makes for an interesting read.

The Details

As you might be able to guess, the book is centered on characters who are about to be unwound, though all for different reasons. Connor is a rebellious teenager whose parents have ordered his unwinding; Risa is a ward of the state who is forced to be unwound due to budget cuts; and Lev is a tithe whose unwinding has been planned since birth as part of a religious ceremony. It doesn’t take long for their paths to intersect, and the three of them become runaway Unwinds who face obstacles at every turn as they struggle to find a place where they can survive until the age of eighteen, when they can no longer be touched.

The book switches between each character’s perspective, with additional viewpoints thrown in occasionally to help propel the story. I think this method of writing worked really well since Connor, Risa and Lev are all going to be unwound for different reasons, and therefore have very different emotional states. Connor and Risa are bitter and resentful – Connor more so since it’s his parents who have ordered him to be unwound – while Lev has been trained his whole life to believe that his unwinding is a gift. When that world is shattered for him, the consequences can be deadly.

There is no doubt that this book is disturbing and graphic at times. There are additional concepts thrown in beyond unwinding that make things even more thought-provoking, such as storking (where an unwanted child can be left on a stranger’s doorstep, and upon finding him or her the stranger becomes responsible for the child by law) and clappers (Shusterman’s take on domestic terror). There are also topics left out of the book completely, such as contraception and adoption, which both seem to be irrelevant in this new world.

By now, you have likely decided whether this is the type of book that you’d be even remotely interested in. But suspending political and moral beliefs momentarily, you’ll no doubt be sucked into the storyline. Nicole brought up a great quote from the book during our book club meeting. At one point in the story, several characters are discussing the concept of a soul – whether a person truly has one or not and, if so, what happens to it when they are unwound. Everybody seems to have an opinion one way or the other except for a boy named Hayden, who says he doesn’t know. The other boys tease him and tell him that “I don’t know” isn’t an answer, but Connor speaks up for him:

“‘Yes, it is an answer,’ Connor says. ‘Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.’”

It’s an interesting perspective that gets at the heart of what the book strives to convey.

So, what do you think? Have you (or would you) read Unwind?


I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy of the book’s sequel, UnWholly . Apparently it is going to be a trilogy, with movie talks in the works, too. I expect we’ll hear a lot more about this series!

In the meantime, I can’t wait for the next chapter of Reading Between the Wines. :)



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