The City of Ember begins with instructions from the chief builder and the assistant builder, instructions on how to leave the city in 200 years. They plan to entrust the instructions with the mayor in a locked box that will open on a set date. Each mayor will care for the box without knowing what is inside and then pass it off to the next mayor. This process continued successfully through the first six mayors. The seventh was ill and tried to open the box in a hope that it would contain a cure. He couldn’t open the box, he died and the box was lost to the back of a closet.
Three generations later, Lina Mayfleet encounters the box as her aging grandmother throws items from the closet. Her baby sister Poppy eats the paper inside which Lina retrieves and begins to piece together. With the help of her friend Doon Harrow, they decipher the message and realize what the builders had instructed the city to do.
I was immediately intrigued by the mystery of why a city was built, presumably underground, with the inhabitants to stay inside for 200 years. The city is by no means a metropolis. Was it an experiment? Was it to save the human race? The little world-building that occurs – winding roads, huge lights that hang overhead, tunnels underneath the city that contain pipes for water and electricity, the dark abyss beyond the city limits – creates a finite city. Not just because there is clear distinction between where there are lights and where the lights stop. But there are also concerns about supplies.
Citizens of Ember eat a lot of canned food as well as whatever can be grown in the greenhouses. They hoard string and buttons and pencils. The builders clearly stocked the city for 200 years and things are running out. Blame the missing box of instructions. Blame the timekeepers throughout the years, some of whom did not regularly wind the clock so time was lost.
Doon knows something is wrong – the supplies, the more frequent power outages. Lina gets sucked into his concern when her document seems to relate.
I do wish there was more back story on Doon. I feel like I knew more about Lina and her family and why she loves her job as a messenger. (We’ll get to the jobs in a moment.) Doon willingly takes a job in the Pipeworks because he wants to see the generator. He loves to take things apart and put them back together. That serves the story but I never understood why Doon, a 12 year old boy, is the only one who can see that something wrong in Ember. Probably because this is a YA novel and who wants an adult to figure things out?
And that leaves me to my next point. I kept forgetting that Lina and Doon are twelve. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that they’re twelve. I’m fine with smart kids getting things done. But child labor laws are thrown out the window in Ember because at twelve, everyone stops going to school and is assigned a job. The kids seem to work harder than the adults. Lina’s grandmother, admittedly battling dementia, half-heartedly runs a shop. Lina’s neighbor, a middle-aged woman, stays home all day and looks out her window. We see some adults working – in the greenhouse, the mayor and his staff, in the supply depot – but I kept forgetting the kids were so young.
Especially because of Lizzie. She is assigned to the supply depot and quickly gets in with an older boy (dare I say man?) who gives her extra supplies on the sly. She calls him her boyfriend and I dearly hope it is without any perks more than holding hands. Lizzie struts and tosses her hair and seems older than twelve. Maybe I don’t know enough twelve year olds. I suppose my long-winded point is to wonder why the characters had to be so young. Would the story have been different if they were fifteen or eighteen?
Again, as an adult reading this book, these are the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read. Possibly a tween would read The City of Ember and delight in the can-do attitude of Lina and Doon and their adventures.
Other thoughts that arose as I read:
- – What is Jeanne DuPrau saying about government and authority figures in this book? It’s typical for there to be absent parents (that lets kids run around) but the corrupt government plays a large role. Are the mayor and his police merely an obstacle for Lina and Doon to overcome? This is the first in a series so maybe the mayor (and other adults) will come into play in later installments.
- – Without giving the ending away, I was reminded of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. If you read The City of Ember, read Allegory of the Cave afterward. Am I reading too much into DuPrau’s ending?
- – I loved the library filled with books written by the inhabitants of Ember. They are sorted between fiction and nonfiction and anyone can write a book and put it in the library. It is a charming idea, more so for fiction, that anyone can write a book and it gets shelf space.
- – Language that we know as children doesn’t exist in this world. They only know what they need to know. As Lina and Doon learn new words for new objects their world begins to rapidly expand. It’s interesting to consider how a society could lose so much knowledge so quickly through a handful of choices.