Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: City of Ember

I’ve read some young adult novels were written several years ago.  One of them was City of Ember, written in 2003. Previously, I’d only seen the movie, and before I read the book, I thought it was a good movie. Reading the book has made me realize how lacking the movie is. This book is for a younger age group than Hunger Games, Divergent or any of those. It’s kind of like a starter dystopian book for preteens.

Ember is an underground city that was designed to keep the remnants of humanity safe and isolated after the regular world was destroyed. It was only intended for the occupants to live in it for 200 years and then be released. Only the instructions aren’t passed down the way they are supposed to be, and the release doesn’t happen.
Lina and Doon discover damaged instructions written by the builders of Ember and begin a scavenger hunt of clues to break the code. Like many other dystopian books, children are assigned jobs at a certain age, in this case by drawing a slip of paper with a job written on it. Some jobs are good, others not so much. Lina and Doon both draw jobs they don’t want, but a simple trade of jobs benefits them both and put them in better positions to find out the key to reaching the surface.

From amazon.com:
It is always night in the city of Ember. But there is no moon, no stars. The only light during the regular twelve hours of "day" comes from floodlamps that cast a yellowish glow over the streets of the city. Beyond are the pitch-black Unknown Regions, which no one has ever explored because an understanding of fire and electricity has been lost, and with it the idea of a Moveable Light. "Besides," they tell each other, "there is nowhere but here" Among the many other things the people of Ember have forgotten is their past and a direction for their future. For 250 years they have lived pleasantly, because there has been plenty of everything in the vast storerooms. But now there are more and more empty shelves--and more and more times when the lights flicker and go out, leaving them in terrifying blackness for long minutes. What will happen when the generator finally fails?

Twelve-year-old Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet seem to be the only people who are worried. They have just been assigned their life jobs--Lina as a messenger, which leads her to knowledge of some unsettling secrets, and Doon as a Pipeworker, repairing the plumbing in the tunnels under the city where a river roars through the darkness. But when Lina finds a very old paper with enigmatic "Instructions for Egress," they use the advantages of their jobs to begin to puzzle out the frightening and dangerous way to the city of light of which Lina has dreamed. As they set out on their mission, the haunting setting and breathless action of this stunning first novel will have teens clamoring for a sequel. (There are now three more books in the series)

My random and rambling thoughts:
There are differences between the book and the movie. In fact, the only similarities are the assignment of jobs, the poor condition of Ember and the fact that they get out.
In the movie, the order of events are changed.  People’s roles and stories are changed and the way Lina and Doon escape.

In the book, there is a lot of plot that has to do with the mayor taking the resources, Lina and Doon reporting him to the guards and then being wanted for spreading vicious rumors. None of this happens in the movie.

In the movie, the instructions act more like a map while in the book a lot more time is spend following clues and trying to decipher the clues. The movie adds a glass plate used as a key to help get out is added.

The role of the fathers are totally different in the book and movie. In the book, neither Doon nor Lina’s fathers are involved in the escape from Ember, but in the movie, Lina’s father thought the way out was the river and drown trying to get out. Doon finds out his father was working with Lina’s, and Doon tells his father about the instructions.
The weirdest difference is the inclusion of a giant mole in the movie. It roams the pipes, and is responsible for the mayor’s demise.

As far as the escape from Ember, there are too many differences to even go into. 
Overall I think the movie is a very shallow portrayal of the book. It’s worth the time to read it to get more of the story, deeper insights into Ember, its citizens, the mayor and the main characters Lina and Doon.  The way they figure out the exit and leave the city are much more fulfilling.

This book is appropriate for preteens.  Teens may be somewhat bored, but they may also find it an easy, quick read.

Here is what Plugged In Online says:


Two hundred years.
That's how long the remnants of humanity have lived deep underground after an unspecified apocalypse rendered Earth's surface unlivable. For generations, the citizens of the city known as Ember have depended upon a massive generator (powered by an underground river) to keep their beloved subterranean suburb humming.
Now, inexplicably, the great generator is failing. Power outages—accompanied by terrible blackness—are getting longer. Stockpiles of food that have sustained Ember for two centuries seem to be running low.
But the majority of Ember's citizenry stubbornly refuses to believe that life as they've always known it might be coming to an end. Chief among the skeptics is Ember's portly mayor, who calmly establishes a task force to look into these interruptions in the status quo.
Doon Harrow, the son of an inventor, believes he can repair the generator, if only he can get access to it. But the really bright thread of this story emerges from the weave when Lina Mayfleet's preschool-age sister, Poppy, discovers a mysterious box in the closet of their home ... a box apparently left behind by an ancestor who was also the city's seventh mayor. Lina's granny (with whom she lives) faintly recalls that the box was important. But she can't remember why.
Doon's path crosses Lina's on Assignment Day—the day teens graduate from school to adult jobs in the city. And as Ember's power outages grow longer, Doon and Lina race against time to decipher confusing clues in an ever-deepening mystery. Hidden tunnels. Cryptic instructions. Monstrous creatures lurking in the shadows.
Piece by piece, the picture becomes clear: Ember wasn't designed to be a permanent home for humanity, only a temporary shelter. The people must return to the surface.
But someone, it seems, doesn't want them to get there.

City of Ember showcases the values of hard work, family and pursuing the truth even if others discourage you.
Personal career plans don't play well in a society built around sheer survival. And in Ember, adults are randomly assigned lifetime occupations. Despite that, most of Ember's citizenry admirably shoulder their responsibilities. Pipe fitters stop leaks. Electricians tend to the power grid. Greenhouse keepers ensure production of fresh food to complement stored canned goods. And so on.
Doon's father, Loris, encourages the virtues of hard work and perseverance. Loris tells Doon that he has little control over life circumstances ("What you get, you get"), but that his response to those circumstances is what really matters ("What you do with what you get is more the point").
Both Doon and Lina come from loving, if fractured, families. Lina lives with and cares for her elderly granny. (We learn that her parents were killed years before in an accident.) And Lina also tends to the needs of her younger sister. In essence, she's assuming adult responsibilities even before she graduates into the adult world of Ember, putting the needs of her family before her own. When Granny quietly passes away following a respiratory illness (we see her in her bed when she doesn't wake up), Lina and Poppy go to live with a kindhearted family friend named Mrs. Murdo.
As Doon and Lina inch closer to uncovering the secret of Ember's builders—and the escape plan they engineered—the teens repeatedly come to each other's rescue in moments of peril. Several other characters, including a greenhouse custodian and an aging pipeworks laborer, also place their lives on the line in the service of the quest for the truth.
[Spoiler Warning] Loris initially discourages Doon from trying to find an escape from the city. But we learn that Loris is doing so because a similar venture took the lives of several of his friends when he was much younger. Eventually Loris changes his mind, though, and encourages his son to continue pursuing the quest that he abandoned himself.
Lina discovers that an acquaintance her age has been stealing food in her role as a warehouse steward. Though the young thief tries to rationalize her behavior by saying there's so little food remaining that it doesn't matter, Lina tells her that what she's doing is still wrong.


City of Ember is a peculiar movie. As post-apocalyptic action flicks go, it has remarkably few content concerns. The two scenes with the mutated mole are the worst of it, along with some mild fisticuffs and moments of suspense. It's a rare film these days, even among those labeled as "family friendly," that has so few problems. So it would seem that Walden Media continues its commitment to bringing enjoyable, restrained stories to the big screen.
Digging a bit deeper, though, there may be a bit more going on here. On the surface, City of Ember is an engaging story about two teens whose determination to find the truth and challenge the status quo ends up saving humanity. And the consistent theme of moving from darkness to light could even be interpreted as having spiritually meaningful undertones.
On the other hand, the film arguably suggests that neither organized religion nor politics will provide the solutions that society desperately needs. For that matter, adults generally seem unwilling to consider new ways of looking at the world or solving problems. While it would be a stretch to call these messages subversive, neither the "spiritually faithful" nor public leaders tasked with shepherding the city garner much praise here. The former are hopelessly untethered from reality, while the latter are too crooked to be trusted. In the end, Doon and Lina can only trust themselves—a message that's both deeply humanist and pretty pessimistic at the same time.
Speaking of pessimism, consider for a moment City of Ember's setting: We never know exactly why humans were forced underground, whether the catalyst was global ecological disaster or perhaps a nuclear war. All we're told is that the scientists believed it would take 200 years before the earth would be habitable again. "On the day the world ended," a voiceover tells us, "The fate of mankind was carried in a small metal box."
Stories about the end of the world are nothing new, of course. But not so very long ago, they were aimed primarily at older audiences. In her article "Unhappily Ever After," Newsweek columnist Karen Springen writes, "Once upon a time, doomsday stories—War of the WorldsPlanet of the Apes—were adults-only fare. Today one of the hottest segments of children's literature is about surviving the end of the world."
And, indeed, City of Ember is based on a bestselling children's book of the same name.
"We have more ways of ending the world than we had before," says Jeanne DuPrau, who wrote the book. "These are big, hard truths that are facing kids, and they need to know these things."
Whether they need to know these things or not is still debatable, of course. But the fact that they do indeed stumble upon them is incontestable. And families are going to have to individually grapple with how a film like City of Ember fits into that not-always-slow-enough growing up process. If it does fit, it should certainly be used to spark conversation and learning, not just serve as mindless entertainment. But that path is opened up in this case—far more than it normally is when it comes to movies—by the aforementioned restraint shown by the film's makers


  1. I saw the movie before I read the book. I like the movie best.

  2. Our teacher read it to us in 5th grade.