Long ago, the Builders created Ember, an underground city. The Builders only intended for the people of Ember to stay underground for two hundred years, but, due to a slight wrinkle in the Builders’ plans, the people of Ember have stayed underground far longer than two hundred years. Now, supplies are running out. In fact, there soon won’t even be light bulbs left, and the people will be left in darkness.
Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember is a children’s post-apocalyptic novel that follows the adventures of Lina and Doon. Lina and Doon, at twelve years old, have finished their schooling. Lina, who loves running, manages to become a Messenger, while Doon, who wants to find a way to fix Ember’s flagging generator, draws work in the Pipeworks. Lina is an outgoing and cheerful girl, while Doon is more introspective and given to temperamental outbursts. However, they are sincere protagonists who hope to make a positive impact on their city.
Unfortunately for the people of Ember, not everyone in the city is so caring and determined. Ember’s mayor, who is well aware that the city is running out of resources, is hoarding food. He encourages Lina to stay quiet and trust that the city’s leaders will solve all of their problems. Others, called Believers, place their faith in the hope that, somehow, the Builders will return and deliver them to a new city — or maybe just bring better equipment along. They encourage Lina to join them in their singing. Lina and Doon are young and often naïve, but they distrust the advice of their elders and follow their own consciences. In these moments, I found City of Ember almost irresistibly charming.
Impressively, there’s more to the novel than mere charm and admirable sentiment. DuPrau’s setting, an underground city whose resources and generator are all but depleted, is a surprisingly rich setting. Putting aside the fact that underground cities are intrinsically fascinating, Ember allows DuPrau to allude to themes of conservation and spiritual awakening without ever moving away from her characters and their quest to save their city.
Or maybe I’m just a sucker for motifs that revolve around light and darkness. I particularly like how Ember’s gardener, Clary, speaks to Lina about their corrupt mayor:
There is so much darkness in Ember, Lina. It’s not just outside, it’s inside us, too. Everyone has some darkness inside. It’s like a hungry creature. It wants and wants and wants with terrible power. And the more you give it, the bigger and hungrier it gets.
Well said, Clary.
Regardless, I began to read City of Ember as an allegory capable of provoking reflection in much the same way that Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” provokes reflection. At one point in the novel, I realized that I had begun thinking about how much a society can change in two hundred years. Ember forgets its history and the origins of words like “hogwash” or the meaning of words like “boat.” Even though I can speak generally about centuries of history, I began to consider how difficult it would be to track the history of my family or of everyday items like pants as far back as just two hundred years ago.
As a children’s novel, City of Ember lacks the violence of, say, The Hunger Games or the focus on sexuality found in Twilight and its sequels. I nevertheless found City of Ember more enjoyable and thoughtful than many of its “more mature” peers. Recommended to children, young adults and parents alike.