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The Unnameables Hardcover – October 1, 2008
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From School Library Journal
Grade 6–9—This unusual debut novel is a fantasy set in the modern day. Teenaged Medford Runyuin has never really felt accepted by the island community where he's been raised. Orphaned after his parents drowned, he's being raised by Boyce, a wood-carver, and is training to follow his trade. Even though they trade with the Mainland for necessities, the community is self-sufficient and disdainful of technology. Its residents only name or create useful things, and their surnames denote what they do, like Baker or Tailor. When their children reach age 14, they Transition to adulthood and the Council Elders assigns them a permanent job and last name. Everyone's life is guided by "The Book," a compendium of household and etiquette tips handed down for generations and followed religiously. Citizens can be banished to the Mainland for committing infractions like making Unnameables—frivolous items. Despite the consequences, Medford has been secretly carving and hiding away beautiful wooden objects for years. One day, a part-man, part-goat washes up on the shore near his cabin. The Goatman can call up the wind but cannot control his gift so he was sent to the island to learn to master it. Both know it's just a matter of time before their secrets are discovered. The setting and the dawning rebellion of the island's inhabitants against tradition and conformity are well done. This novel, with certain plot points reminiscent of The Giver, will not appeal to all fantasy readers, but those who try it will find it has a style and charm of its own.—Sharon Rawlins, New Jersey State Library, Trenton
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The people of the island Island are an insatiably strict lot. Everything must have a use, and their names must match that use: cows are called Greater Horned Milk Creatures, seabirds are nameless because they are useless, Prudence Carpenter gets renamed Prudence Learned when she becomes a teacher, and so on. Medford Runyuin has trouble fitting in, being that he was shipwrecked on the island as a baby and has no useful name, though he was taken in by the Carvers. In secret, he whittles beautiful carvings out of wood, an abomination in the eyes of usefulness that could get him exiled. Then, a strange goat-man creature arrives, befriends Medford, and in a flurry of chaos upsets the neat order of things. If the execution doesn’t quite match up to the highly imaginative premise of the story—Booraem’s renamed world is a little rough around the edges—readers will still come away knowing that artistry and beauty are by no means useless. Patient readers who like a little quirk in their fantasy will enjoy this stick-it-to-the-status-quo romp. Grades 6-9. --Ian Chipman
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One a second level, "The Unnameables" is a parable about oppressive societies of all types that prevent people from expressing their full humanity, preferring to hew to a rigid and exclusive set of rules. These societies range from high school cliques to the Taliban. And while the former are less lethal than the latter, both are soul-crushing and damaging.
"The Unnameables" is exciting, fast paced and fun to read. The content is aimed at a junior high audience (there is a hint of romance, but no more) but can be enjoyed by anyone with a little experience of the knocks this world has to offer. Bravo for Ellen Booraem!
That, I thought, is a sure recipe for a book that is beloved by teacher's organizations, book award clubs, and other such fine folks who tend to see a message being much more important than story, writing, or imagination. In other words, where the moral of the story is so obvious it's pretty much a given a book should be called unreadable.
I was wary.
And I was pleasantly surprised.
Booraem has accomplished a brilliant task, offering a story with a clear moral without being overbearing or blatant about it. Indeed, she helps create a unique world that echoes aspects of our own, but certainly has rather strong differences. Indeed, these strong differences make The Unnameables more of a fairy tale story rather than an attempt to show a direct picture into our society.
As the story went on it we are pushed deeper into this world, caught up in the characters, some usual and some wholly unique. We quickly move past the expected "Footloose" plot where young, creative teenagers show the adults about having fun. Instead, the story moves deeper, where there is no generational line, and where we see a wonderful creative exploration of a society's tradition, history, and culture.
Booraem has a moral to the story, but is not preaching, nor is she drawing lines in the sand against religious, cultural, or other societal standards. What she is saying is be true to who you are, and this goes for those religions, cultures, and standards. It is when these standards have lost sight of their own foundations there is distortions, distortions which sadly then take over the whole movement.
But even as I write that last paragraph I feel awkward, because that sounds so dry and 'full of message' like a heartwarming episode of our favorite family sitcom.
It's not that. It's so much more enjoyable. Booraem has walked a very fine line in her writing giving us both a message while avoiding becoming overbearing. More than that, she has penned a very readable book. That's why I gave it five stars. I realized not too far in that I kept wanting to come back to it, I couldn't put it down, and I was for a long while absolutely lost in this story that has a wonderful mix of identity crisis, detective story, fantasy, and even humor.
Honestly, this is one of those books that I think was marked as young adult fiction more because of the age of the main characters. It is directed towards those 10 and up, though I would suspect the emphasis would be more on the 'up', and probably would be more enjoyed by kids and adults who themselves have a creative, introverted, side they have felt punished for.
Indeed, it's a great book for artists of all ages, and I highly recommend it as a fun read.
Ellen Booraem's first book is a wonderful piece of word-painting. Her writing is economical but conjures a rich set of images. Life on Island is slow and considered, and the opening chapters convey this rhythm - although they hint at tensions beneath the surface too. The pace picks up as the tensions break through the surface, and the language takes on more urgency as well. Although as an adult reader I knew where Booraem was going with this story, I was carried by her prose through to the end with pleasure. An early teen reader would find the ending illuminating and perhaps inspiring.
The people of Island are a curious blend of old and new - they have created an island in Time to match the oddly inaccessible nature of their home. They speak in a mixture of deliberately archaic English and plain everyday speech - perhaps some modern readers would find the archaic language difficult but such readers are not Booraem's target audience. The kind of teen I was would eat this stuff up.
The society of Island is rigidly controlled despite its superficial egalitarianism. One of the themes in The Unnameables is how an idealistic society goes astray, to the point where it becomes a denial of its original values. This is a message for our time for sure! Although the Island bears some superficial resemblance to various traditionalist groups in real life, and is also similar to some religious groups in other ways, it should not be read as a commentary on such groups. Booraem is talking about a much bigger issue, and I don't think she intends the reader to be overly distracted by seeking parallels. The Unnameables is about individuality and identity, how a young person finds who s/he is, and how identity denied becomes a destructive force both for individuals and for societies.
I enjoyed The Unnameables and I look forward to more from Ellen Booraem.
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