June 06, 2006


Phoenix Rising definitely counts as a Summer Read, but not for the usual reasons. It is neither lighthearted fare nor funny (in fact, you may need a tissue), but it is a short novel that stays with you. Karen Hesse wrote this book after seeing a documentary on the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and was unable to shake the scenes of devastation from her memory. This book contains the same ache, adding to it the poignance of a friendship coupled with the losses a disaster brings -- mostly a loss of innocence.

Nyle lives with her grandmother on her Vermont sheep ranch. Nyle didn't always live there; once she had both a mother and a father, but her mother was dying, and her father abandoned them both. Once she had a grandfather, too, but illness carried him away, leaving Nyle a terror of the back bedroom where both of them died, and a deep ache. Older now, Nyle is used to living with losses, has gotten used to the rhythm and routine of life with sheep. She loves her best friend, tries hard in school, and isn't interested in learning any other way of life. Nyle is home.

But then 'home' changes. A nuclear accident at a nearby plant plunges the community into dark basements, masks on their faces. Roads are blocked, cattle are slaughtered and fear looms throughout the village. When her grandmother quietly takes in a refugee family, Nyle is afraid that the darkness in that back bedroom will take another life. She is afraid to meet death again, afraid to even look at the faces of the people who have suffered so much, and probably would die. But because it's the right thing to do, she pushes down her fears and looks. What the room holds instead of fear is hope.

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