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‘Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands’

by Chris Bohjalian

Doubleday, 288 pp., $25.95

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. In Chris Bohjalian’s novel of the same name, teenage protagonist, Emily Shepard writes those words on a blackboard in her abandoned school.

She first heard the phrase in news reports about the Newtown school massacre. It’s what a cop or teacher told survivors as they were rushed out the building past the bodies of their classmates.

Emily is a survivor, too, homeless and living on the streets of Burlington, Vt. She lived with her family in a largely rural section of Vermont until a dam was breached, flooding the Cape Abenaki nuclear plant, causing the cooling system to fail and provoking a Fukushima-style catastrophe.

Emily and her classmates are evacuated, but unlike the others, Emily will not be reunited with her parents. Her mother was the plant’s communications director, her dad its chief engineer. Both are among the 19 people killed in the initial explosion. His death made her father a handy scapegoat, especially since he was a known drinker.

So the daughter of “the most hated man” in America runs away and does what she must to survive: She creates a new identity, lives briefly in a Burlington shelter, squats with a drug dealer and raises money in one of the few ways pretty young girls make money. Her life is a steady and unavoidable downward spiral of drug use, self-mutilation and rest-stop truckers.

But she runs into someone even worse off than her: Cameron, a 9-year-old refugee from abusive foster homes. In helping him, she finds purpose.

Bohjalian’s novels don’t lend themselves to easy summary. They are intelligent, rich in detail, filled with full-blooded characters. And “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is Bohjalian at his finest.