After a nuclear meltdown, a Vermont teen flees to the mean streets of Burlington.
Emily Shepard, 16, is hanging out with fellow juniors in the lunchroom at her exclusive private school when sirens signal disaster: The Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant in northeastern Vermont has exploded, and the entire area surrounding it, including the school, must be evacuated immediately. Rather than stay with her classmates, Emily strikes out on her own. She assumes, correctly as it develops, that her father, the chief engineer at the plant, and her mother, the communications director, were killed in the disaster. Her entire town is cordoned off, part of an “exclusion zone”; armed guards prevent Emily from returning home to rescue the family dog. As she hitchhikes southwest toward Burlington, she overhears talk blaming her father for the accident. (Both her parents were heavy drinkers.) Fearing she will be asked to testify about her father’s alcoholism, she assumes a new identity and claims to be 18. After bouncing from a Burlington shelter to the home of a drug dealer who exploits her and other young women as prostitutes, Emily rescues 9-year-old Cameron, an escapee from an abusive foster home. During the frigid Vermont winter, the two inhabit an igloo of frozen, leaf-filled trash bags, but when spring thaw melts their domicile, Emily gets a waitressing job and a place to stay, thanks to a shelter acquaintance. This newfound security is short-lived: Cameron falls seriously ill, and after an emergency room visit threatens to expose both their identities, Emily fears she has run out of Plan B’s.
Readers hoping for a futuristic novel imagining the aftermath of a Fukushima-type disaster in the United States may be disappointed—Bohjalian’s primary focus is on examining, in wrenching detail, the dystopia wrought by today’s economy. Emily’s voice is a compelling one, however, and hers is a journey readers will avidly follow.