Chris Bohjalian is one of those authors you love to love, because not only can he tell a compelling story, he’s just a nice guy. I remember working at the Book Mark in Winooski, VT, when I was a graduate student at UVM and he would come in to sign books and he was approachable, friendly, and funny. At that time (1999) he had recently been catapulted to stardom because Midwives had been chosen for Oprah’s booklist in 1998, but you would never have known it based on his demeanor.
Ever since Midwives, I’ve read his new books as soon as they come out. It is hard to choose a favorite, but I especially love it when I recognize the setting. For example, in Double Bind, not only were there tons of Gatsby references, I knew many of the geographical references. In Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, the references to the statues on Church street of the children playing leapfrog, and restaurants like Leunig’s made me nostalgic for one of the best times of my life. Living in Burlington as I attended graduate school for English was a magical time for me, and Bohjalian’s references made this book even more powerful for me because I could vividly picture exactly what he referenced.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands was also powerful for me because I am now a high school teacher, and the main character in this novel is a young woman who negotiates a traumatic event, working through it by using drugs, being promiscuous, and cutting herself. My heart was breaking as I read her account of trying to manage all the crazy situations of suddenly becoming orphaned and having to fend for herself. It is unfortunate, but I could see some of my past and present students reflected in her–the verisimilitude of the writing created a huge amount of pathos for me. The sassy narrator, who seems to be a little scattered in how she tells the story (obviously purposeful on the author’s part, which also adds to the impact), is a sharp young lady and I love her writing voice and her wry commentary on the world.
This novel was simultaneously heart-wrenching and beautiful. The descriptions of the vibrant autumn leaves after the nuclear meltdown juxtaposed with Emily’s emotional meltdown were powerful. I also particularly enjoyed all the literary references. Emily Dickinson is woven throughout the story, but we also see allusions to Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” and even pop culture references throughout. I think, in some ways, Bohjalian is an English teacher’s dream, since his books overflow with allusions and references to great literary works.
What I particularly enjoyed about this story was the hopeful ending. While Emily had a traumatic experience and she struggled to find shelter, navigate a frightening world, and help a younger homeless boy, I think the ending offered a reasonable amount of hope–for all of us. When I finally understood the title came from what the teachers told students during the Sandy Hook tragedy, I think this hopeful ending was even more important. I highly recommend this read–once you start, you will surely be up all night, turning pages.
Check out this powerful book trailer on Bohjalian’s website.
posted by Kate, VP Secondary
(follow Kate on Goodreads)