Review of The City of Ember
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, July 2007
In The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau two preteens struggle to find a way past the unbroken blackness that surrounds their self-contained city before the generator that sustains them fails. This engaging mystery could easily be set inside an abandoned underground space settlement. Twelve-year-old Lina does not know where her city is, or how it came to exist. She knows only that it was built 200-some years ago and stocked with everything the residents needed to live comfortably. She eats canned food supplemented with some fresh items grown in a community greenhouse. The city is surrounded by total blackness. Artificial lights provide their sole illumination.
At age 12, the children of Ember graduate from school and take jobs maintaining their community. Lina longs to be a messenger, but as the story begins, she draws pipeworks instead. A boy named Doon, who drew messenger, trades with her. Doon explains that he wants to be underground because that is where the generator is—and he hopes to find and fix the problem that is causing ever-more-frequent blackouts. He accuses the mayor of covering up the fact that the city is in danger of collapse and is running out of critical supplies such as light bulbs.
We soon learn that Lina's parents died of some sickness, and she and her baby sister live with their grandmother. The grandmother is the daughter of a former mayor—who, the reader was told in the prologue, was supposed to pass along a special box that would open after 200 years and tell the inhabitants of Ember what to do when their supplies ran out. The former mayor died without passing on the box to his successor. The senile grandmother uncovers the box in the closet and Lina's baby sister chews the fragile document inside. Lina pastes the pieces together and, with the help of Doon, and thwarted by the corrupt mayor and his police, seeks to solve the mystery of the "Instructions for Egress" and save the people of Ember.
Many aspects of the story resonate with problems that may be faced by a space settlement that loses its connection to the outside universe. People in an artificial environment with minimal knowledge of the science and technology that sustains them are probably doomed, at least in the long-term. The people of Ember do not even have portable lights to use to explore the darkness beyond their city and locate new resources. At first I found this unbelievable, but then I considered that they would lack the raw materials with which to experiment. After 240 years, though, I think someone would have found a way to make oil from plants in the greenhouse and use it in a lamp, or develop a battery from spare parts out of some machine. Then again, if everything is provided to you, there may not be much incentive to invent or improve things. Without a knowledgeable teacher, it may not even be possible. If your local power plant was knocked out, could you fix it, even if someone gave you the technical drawings? I doubt you could you do it in complete darkness!
The most unbelievable thing in the story was not that canned foods and other items such as fabrics and stoves would not go bad, rot, or fall apart after 200 years (in the Houston humidity, shoes mold, coat hangars rust, and paper gets eaten by bugs in a matter of months!), but that the builders of such a city would be so dumb as to leave only one copy of the instructions for egress and leave it on fragile paper with no backup! Also, leaving the residents no texts explaining basic science and technology that required for survival, is equivalent to leaving a toddler alone in a car with the engine running. The author does not provide any type of religion or taboo or law that prevents the inhabitants from experimenting—and curious humans are adept at taking things apart to see how they work.
Nevertheless, I found this book intriguing and fascinating, and the main characters likeable and believable. The adults were a bit stereotypical, but they are also not essential to the story. The book comes to a logical conclusion, but many questions remain unanswered. The premise for the story, that the inhabitants of the City of Ember were locked away in this city for 200 years without any knowledge of where they are or why, is not revealed. This is the first book of a series, however, so perhaps the answer lies in one of the later books.
School Library Journal reports that there is an excellent audio version of this book that teens and parents may want to listen to and discuss during road trips. What are some of the technical things we take for granted in our world? What essential knowledge do we need to fix them? Aren't all those the same things we need to know to run a space settlement?
I give this book a half point for plausibility (because of the premise), 1 point for descriptions, 1 point for a new perspective, 1 point for readability, a half point for science in the plot (the children don't use any science to solve the problem), and 1 point for interesting characters. Total 5 points. Recommended.
The City of Ember is an engaging tale of mystery and exploration that should entertain and inspire young people everywhere, especially those who dream of being space pioneers.
Title: The City of Ember
Author: Jeanne DuPrau
Date: May 2004
Retail Price: $5.99