Emily Shepard is a troubled young girl who is forced to face enormous, catastrophic changes in her life. She lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. She is a bright teenager in her junior year at a good private school. She does not perform to her potential although she is quite capable; she is not interested in anything other than English and her favorite author, Emily Dickinson, her namesake, someone whose poetry she reveres. She often uses the lines from particular poems to guide her in her behavior and decisions.
When there is a horrific event at the Cape Abenaki Nuclear Power plant, resulting in a meltdown, Emily’s father is blamed since he was in charge. It was suspected that drunkenness was at the heart of the disaster requiring the evacuation of the area and the creation of containment zones. An enormous clean-up effort had to be launched in the vicinity of the plant and a large area surrounding it. Although her parents were both at the plant and have probably died, no sympathy is shown toward Emily, rather, fingers are pointed at her and there is a call to bring her in to testify as to the competence of her father. They need to blame someone for the death and destruction that was caused by the meltdown and the Shepards, known for their drinking, are it.
Emily is confused and probably in shock from the magnitude of her loss. She fears for the safety of her dog Maggie who was left behind. She is simply at loose ends with no idea of how to respond to what has happened. She is not able to return to her home, so desperate, she runs away to escape the harassment and barrage of accusations. She changes her name to Abby Bliss, once a close friend of Emily Dickinson and attempts to survive by her wits. This 16 year old becomes involved with many sordid characters in order to support herself. When she befriends nine-year old Cameron, also a runaway, but from an abusive foster home, he becomes her purpose in life; He becomes her family, and her efforts to protect him are fierce.
Although most of the rest of the world outside of the contaminated zone is not as much involved in the catastrophe at Cape Abenaki, Emily’s life is consumed by it. This is her story, and she tells it with both pathos and humor, but it is not always logical. It bounces back and forth, in time and place, as she reveals what she has done since the meltdown and divulges her plans to return home. Perhaps this bouncing was part of the author’s design; since she is so troubled maybe he meant to present her narrative that way.
Emily’s character possesses both the tenderness and the hardness necessary to do whatever she must to survive, but though she is supposedly a bright young girl, she reacts often with questionable judgment, more with her youth than her intellect. There are aspects of the story that stretch belief beyond its normal boundaries, and even the suspension of disbelief fails to justify the premise presented. Her lifestyle was sometimes amoral. She turned tricks, stole what she needed and was a cutter who harmed herself to feel good, a contradiction in terms, but a very real problem.
In the end, the book did not fulfill my expectations. It left unanswered questions, unresolved major controversial issues and really made no sweeping social statements, although the main idea of the book definitely presented the opportunity to do so.