Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Author: 
Bohjalian, Chris

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is the story of Emily Shepard, a homeless teen living in an igloo made of ice and trash bags filled with frozen leaves. Half a year earlier, a nuclear plant in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom had experienced a cataclysmic meltdown, and both of Emily's parents were killed.

Devastatingly, her father was in charge of the plant, and the meltdown may have been his fault. Was he drunk when it happened? Thousands of people are forced to flee their homes in the Kingdom; rivers and forests are destroyed; and Emily feels certain that as the daughter of the most hated man in America, she is in danger.

So instead of following the social workers and her classmates after the meltdown, Emily takes off on her own for Burlington, where she survives by stealing, sleeping on the floor of a drug dealer's apartment, and inventing a new identity for herself—an identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.

When Emily befriends a young homeless boy named Cameron, she protects him with a ferocity she didn't know she had. But she still can't outrun her past, can't escape her grief, can't hide forever—and so she comes up with the only plan that she can.

A story of loss, adventure, and the search for friendship in the wake of catastrophe, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is one of Chris Bohjalian’s finest novels to date—breathtaking, wise, and utterly transporting. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Emily says, “Obviously I made some bad choices. I’m still here, however, so I made some okay ones, too” (p. 41). How much does her fate depend on her own decisions, wise or unwise? What role do events beyond her control—in particular, the public’s unrelenting hostility toward her father—play in these decisions (pp. 41, 53)?

2. Emily overhears a National Guardsman saying that “the energy company will want this to be human error. If it’s human error, then nuclear power doesn’t look so bad. . . . And [the Shepards are] both dead by now. There’s not a lot of collateral damage when you have dead people you can blame” (p. 77). Do you think this is an accurate assessment of how industries and perhaps governmental agencies react to disasters? Can you think of real-life examples when this might have occurred?

3. Emily’s descriptions of her life as a runaway and of Cameron’s childhood experiences (pp.162-63, 166) are often grim and graphic. For the most part, Emily presents them in a straightforward, almost flip manner (p. 172, 174-5, 187). How does this illustrate the realities of life on the streets? What do her attachments to Andrea, Camille, and especially Cameron, and her reminiscences about her parents (pp. 113-14, 201, for example) show about Emily’s ability—and need—to deal with the harsh situations she faces? 

4. In telling her story, Emily moves back and forth in time. How does her narrative reveal her state of mind and the ways in which she perceives or filters her experiences? Do the language and the style accurately reflect the voice of a teenage girl? What passages ring particularly true to you?  What is the significance of her noting, “Sometimes when I reread what I’ve written, I find myself creeped out by what’s between the lines. What I haven’t written” (p.48)?

5. Why does Emily divide her story into B.C., “Before Cameron,” and  A.C., “After Cameron”? Does the division represent something more than mere chronology

6. How would you characterize Emily’s decision to return to the Northeast Kingdom? Is she acting foolishly or is her decision understandable, a necessary, essential conclusion to all that has gone before?

7. Many of the stories we read about teens in crisis explore the lives of those raised in crime-ridden, poverty-stricken areas. Emily comes from an educated, upper-middle-class family, and lives in a “meadow mansion.”  What does she share with troubled teens from less fortunate backgrounds? In what instances do Emily’s reactions to her circumstances embody the positive aspects of her upbringing?

8. Did you know where the title of the novel came from before it was revealed (p. 238)? Why do you think Bohjalian chose this phrase as his title? How does it relate to Emily’s philosophy about the world and the challenges she faces over the course of the novel?

9. How would you describe the overall mood and tone of the novel? How does Bohjalian balance the darkness at the heart of the story with an engaging, often humorous portrait of its protagonist? Would you call Emily a heroine? Why or why not?

10. How do the quotations from Emily Dickinson throughout Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands illuminate the themes of the novel? Consider the relevance of “I’m Nobody! Who are You?,” one of Dickinson’s best-known poems (p. 59), as well as the extracts on pages 19, 78-79, 134, and 154. Does the use of Dickinson’s poetry enrich your experience as a reader? Why is Dickinson’s life, as well as her poetry, so appealing to Emily?

11. Several serious accidents have occurred at the nuclear plants on Three Mile Island, and in Chernobyl and, most recently, at Fukushima Daiichi. What is your opinion on Emily’s assertion about the public’s reaction to these and similarly horrific events: “We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we’re either very resilient or super callous. I don’t know which” (p. 139)?

12. Close Your Eyes, Hold Handsdeals with some of the most difficult issues of our times: the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution, and child abuse. In what ways does it offer insights that news reports and official studies cannot duplicate?