Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

Stories about conformity are always intriguing to me - probably because I'm such a non-conformist myself! The idea of places where conformity is strictly enforced is simultaneously terrifying and fascinating, so The Unnameables is one of those books that appears to be right up my alley.

Medford Runyuin is an outsider in the community of Island. The citizens of Island live by the creed of the Book, and one of the most important rules is "If it hath a Use, give it a Name. Let the Name match the Use. If it hath no Use, it needeth no Name and wilt do thee no Harm." As such, people's names match their uses - Carvers carve Useful tools, Weavers weave Useful clothes. Even plants and animals are renamed to their uses - milk comes from Greater Horned Milk Creatures and beets have been renamed Crimson Boiling Roots. Medford Runyuin is an outsider, an orphan who washed up on the shores of Island tied to a plank, and stubborn town elders and young bullies alike won't let Medford forget that his name proclaims no Use.

At fourteen, children pass through Transition, when they officially take on their Useful name and begin plying a trade as adults in the community. The Town Council, still distrustful of Medford's outside status, denies him the name Carver (he can try again next year), but he will still take on the work of a Carver, while his best friend Prudy, raised by Carpenter parents and had always wanted to be one herself, is instead forced into the scholarly ranks as a Learned.

Medford applies himself as well as he can to his charge as a Carver, but he has a terrible secret - he carves Unnameables. From the wood he is supposed to use to create something Useful, he will instead see a squirrel, a bird, or even a person, and be compelled to bring it out of the wood. Medford knows if anyone discovers his carvings, he will be banished, for "The Unnameable is another thing entire. Take care, or thou shalt be gone."

Four months after Transition, however, Medford has more troubles than simply hiding his fanciful carvings. For someone that simply shouldn't exist has washed up in his front yard - a Goatman. He has the legs of a goat (lesser horned milk creature), the torso of a man, and great horns tipped with golden balls. And a somewhat unrefined ability to summon the wind. Medford knows that if the Town Council can't accept a boy with the name Runyuin, the Goatman is surely doomed. Yet Medford is moved by the Goatman's story, and tries to hide him from prying eyes - but how do you hide a half-goat/half-man in such an insular community?

Yet even as Medford's secrets are spilling out before his adoptive community, long-buried secrets of Island's past are emerging. If Medford has any hope of keeping himself and his new friend safe, he's going to have to use all of his skills, and those of his friends, to uncover parts of the past that some on Island would rather remained buried forever.

The description of Island was giving me major flashbacks to The Giver. Island is much less dystopian (there's no Releasing, no apparent restrictions on family size, etc), but the assignment of jobs (sometimes against the child's will) and banishment, sometimes at the will of only one person, definitely felt familiar from The Giver. Was it just me?

I will say the Goatman plot kind of threw me - for quite awhile I wasn't sure what the point of his character was, and even after finishing I'm not entirely satisfied with how he worked out. He comes across as a bit of a Deus ex Machina a few times, though he is often quite entertaining. His introduction threw off the pacing of the book for awhile - within a few pages suddenly two days had passed and all I could figure Medford and the Goatman had done was drink tea (really, they drink a lot of tea in this book).

Ultimately this was a nice, satisfying book - I can't find too much to critique but at the same time, but I can't find a lot of great things to say about it either. A nice book to while away some time, but not something to go out of your way to find.


Tia said...

For most of your review, the book sounded really interesting, but then I was thrown by the Goatman too... it seemed to shift the story from science-fiction/dystopian to fantasy. I love the Giver, though, so maybe I'll give this a try.

Angela Craft said...

There is a prologue that tries to set you up for the introduction of the Goatman...but I either completely missed it the first time I read the book, or I totally forgot about it by the time the Goatman showed up. I found it (again?) when I picked the book up to find quotations (and only a day had passed between when I started it and when I reviewed it, so I didn't forget because it had been so long since I'd read the book).

Bill said...

We used this for a Grand Discussion with kids and parents. I was thrown by the Goatman as well, but some of our parents and kids who attended came up with some pretty interesting ideas about him. I really liked this book.

Angela Craft said...

Bill - I would LOVE to hear some of those ideas about the Goatman! Perhaps I can be persuaded into "getting" him as a character.

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