The Heartland War, which some call the Second Civil War, is over. A compromise designed to satisfy both the pro-life and the pro-choice armies is in effect. It is called the Bill of Life. Its basic tenets are:
- Human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.
- However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child…
- …on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end.
- The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called “unwinding.”
- Unwinding is now a common, and accepted practice in society.
Connor, Risa, and Lev, have all been selected for unwinding: Connor has behavioral issues; Risa lives in a state home overcrowded with orphans; Lev has been chosen as a “tithe” by his religious family.
As their paths converge, each one chooses to fight back in his/her own way. On the run, doing what they must to survive, these three very different individuals usher readers into the complex moral propositions underlying the Bill of Life:
- When does life begin?
- What gives life value/meaning?
- Is it better to die or to be unwound?
- Should children be required to earn the right to life?
- Who has the right to choose the definition of life?
- Should the greater good rule supreme?
- Do you have to change human nature or the law first?
Even the minor characters are round and woven into the surprisingly complex and well-orchestrated plot. Stylistically, Shusterman’s tight, minimalistic prose and dialogue is very effective in portraying the precarious lives of his characters. The “big ideas” are, for the most part, integrated in a pithy, natural manner. I was pleasantly surprised that Shusterman avoided graphic violence in his depiction of the “unwinding.” The scene is horrifying, perhaps more so because it is left to the reader’s imagination.
Shusterman keeps his conclusions vague. If anything, the ending lacks force as a result. However, the internal logic of Unwind‘s world does not admit any other sort of denouement. Both life and choice are important, Unwind affirms. The Bill of Life is not right: what the best solution actually is, Shusterman does not say.
The book’s blurry picture becomes clearest in the moments when Shusterman points a finger at both sides. At one point, the General says, “A conflict always begins with an issue—a difference of opinion, an argument. But by the time it turns into a war, the issue doesn’t matter anymore, because now it’s about one thing and one thing only: how much each side hates the other.” Both sides of the abortion question would do well to take this message to heart.
Another character, Sonia, says, “One thing you learn when you’ve lived as long as I have—people aren’t all good, and people aren’t all bad. We move in and out of darkness and light all of our lives.”
Even Connor, the non-philosophical one, muses, “In a perfect world mothers would all want their babies, and strangers would open up their homes to the unloved. 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.”*
How very true.
In the final analysis, Unwind shines first as an opportunity to open dialogue about a subject that is often so sensitive as to render it unapproachable. The rest, like the novel itself, is a question of perspective.