It’s not easy to write a middle grade/YA novel that has elements of allegory and cautionary tale without it ending up sounding preachy. Somehow, Jeanne DuPrau has done it. Twice.
Of course, it helps that both books are also good, fun, post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I’m not saying that the books’ message is entirely invisible, or even subtle; but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the books, nor did I find it overpowering (though I suspect that might be a matter of taste). It also helps that I agree with her messages: be careful with this life, this world—it’s the only one we’ve got. Be patient and loving with your fellow humans. Don’t let anger, violence, and hate control you, because you might lose your life, world, and loved ones. Be courageous in the face of difficult choices, because the right decision isn’t always the easy one. Most of all, keep hoping and striving.
I like these messages. But that’s certainly not what drew me in and kept me reading. I am also a sucker for stories about young adults who save the world, or at least a small part of it. And DuPrau’s world is one worth saving, despite the desolation of its implied nuclear holocaust. However, few events have concrete details attached to them; there is simply the Disaster in which the world’s great cities were all destroyed (and this is one of the more overtly politicized messages in the book). The underground city of Ember, doomed though it may be, is equally compelling; and DuPrau absorbingly depicts the social and cultural differences between the refugees from Ember and the aboveground villagers with their hardscrabble lives. (There’s another politicized message: what happens when immigrants and residents clash.)
Perhaps what I enjoyed most were the wonderful details of everyday life, so lovingly imagined by the author and set down in clear, simple, and vivid language. These details made it a world I could believe in; and that’s what really drove the messages home. This could be our world, centuries from now, if we’re not careful.