Sunday, March 13, 2011

Salvation City

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez
Publisher: Penguin Group, 2010
Hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594487668
Highly Recommended

After a flu pandemic has killed large numbers of people worldwide, the United States has grown increasingly anarchic. Large numbers of children are stranded in orphanages, and systems we take for granted are fraying at the seams. When orphaned Cole Vining finds refuge with an evangelical pastor and his young wife in a small Indiana town, he knows he is one of the lucky ones. Sheltered Salvation City has been spared much of the devastation of the outside world.
But it's a starkly different community from the one Cole has known, and he struggles with what this changed world means for him. As those around him become increasingly fixated on their vision of utopia - so different from his own parents' dreams - Cole begins to imagine a new and different future for himself.
Written in Sigrid Nunez's deceptively simple style, Salvation City is a story of love, betrayal, and forgiveness, weaving the deeply affecting story of a young boy's transformation with a profound meditation on the true meaning of salvation.
My Thoughts:

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez is a coming of age novel set in a changing world. Young teen Cole Vining is the narrator. He has lost his parents, Miles and Serena, in a global flu pandemic and, after a brief stay in an orphanage, is currently living with Pastor Wyatt (PW) and his wife Tracy, who hope to adopt him.

As Cole remembers his past with his parents, both academics and atheists, he clearly recalls the tension and their arguments. He knew their marriage was on the verge of divorce. This past contrasts sharply with life in the Christian community of Salvation City with PW and Tracy, where home life is calm and secure, based on their Christian faith. Nunez handles equally deftly the characterizations of both Cole's atheist parents and the Christian Wyatt's.

This is not a dystopian novel intent on showing the collapse of civilization. Because the story is told through Cole's perspective and his memory is imperfect, we don't have a clear global view of what the pandemic has wrought. Instead, we have glimpses of the horrors, as recalled by Cole. While the flu pandemic does influence all aspects of the story, it is truly more of a coming of age story set during hard times and a character study.

Nunez does an excellent job in developing her characters using a deceptively simple style of writing. I really felt that the story was being told by a young adolescent boy, with all of his insecurities and conflicted emotions. He struggles with change just as we all would. (In fact, she actually did such a good job that some reviewers incorrectly labeled Salvation City as a YA novel. It isn't.) She never falters from telling the story through Cole's perspective and in the end we are hopeful he will find the right direction for him in his changed world.

Even though I was expecting Salvation City to be more of a dystopian thriller, I actually quite enjoyed this thoughtful novel based on Nunez's writing alone.
Highly Recommended

The best way to remember people after they've passed is to remember the good about them.
The first time Cole hears Pastor Wyatt say this he remembers how his mother hated when people said passed, or passed away. opening

He was not yet comfortable looking Pastor Wyatt in the face. Cole was keeping so much in - he had so many secrets - he did not like to look anyone in the face if he could help it. He knew this gave the impression he'd done something wrong, and that is just how he felt; as if he'd done something wrong and was trying to hide it. pg. 4

Pastor Wyatt still shakes hands with people. He pays no attention to the warning to switch to the elbow bump. pg. 5

But he is not sure anymore if in fact it was his mother he heard that day. Maybe it was his father. This has become a familiar problem. Cole gets mixed up. He is never completely sure of anything he remembers anymore. He was told that after his fever broke he did not even remember his own name. It wasn't exactly amnesia, but the illness had damaged his brain. He was not the only one to whom this had happened. pg. 8

And if they had never moved, if they had stayed in Chicago, would his parents still be alive? Cole thinks the answer is yes, even though he knows that many people got sick and died in Chicago, too. In the big cities, so many people died so fast that bodies kept piling up and there were corpses everywhere, even outdoors. It is another one of Cole's guilty secrets that he wishes he could have seen this with his eyes. That, and the riots. pg. 12-13

Cole hopes to go around the world one day. One of his favorite words is explorer. pg. 20

Back in the fall, at the beginning of the first wave - the milder and less infectious flu that would kill mostly old people or babies or people already weak from other diseases - back when Cole was still living in Chicago, the assistant principal (the principal was out sick) stood on the stage of the school auditorium and introduced a man from the public health department. pg. 25-26

When the second wave hit, everyone hoped it, too, would be mild. A hope that died by the end of the first week. pg. 35

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