The Prophet of Yonwood continues my read of Jeanne duPrau’s series, The Books of Ember. After The City of Ember and The People of Sparks, this book takes a different look at duPrau’s world, going back to a time before the Disaster.
11 year old Nickie travels to the small North Carolina town of Yonwood with her aunt. Together, her mother and aunt have inherited an old house from their late grandfather and Nickie and Crystal are there to prepare the house for sale. Nickie, caught in the big city of Philadelphia with her mother in troubled times, while her father is off somewhere secret working on an equally secret project, dreams they will get to move to Yonwood and live in the rambling old house. Once in the town, she gets caught up in the resident’s quest for “goodness” to fight the encroaching bad times. The are following the words of Yonwood’s prophet who has had a vision of the end of the world and seems to be offering advice on how to avoid it. As the world faces a showdown between superpowers and waits to see if it is going to end, Nickie fights her own battles to learn what is good and what is evil.
For a short little book with a strangely meandering plot-line that doesn’t seem to have a lot of depth, it is surprisingly full of themes, something I only began to see as I stepped back a bit from reading it. I came into the book expecting something that was going to tell me about the apocalypse and the founding of Ember. Well, it doesn’t. We do find out some things about Ember (for example, at least which US state it is located in) but really, Ember is only a side-line which distracts us from Nickie’s story.
For this is a coming-of-age story about a young girl living in a frightening world and trying to discover her own sense of right and wrong. Her world is a scary place, full of potential war, terrorist threats and continual tension – everyone leaves their televisions on and congregate around any shop where one is running as the president gives regular bulletins about the state of things. Nickie comes to Yonwood seeing it as a place of refuge, safer than Philadelphia, where the troubles might be further away and she and her mother able to live in safety.
Before Nickie and her aunt’s arrival, Althea Tower, one of the local residents collapsed in her garden, seeing a vision of the world ending in fire.
The trees and grass and birds faded away, and in their place she saw blinding flashes of light so searingly bright she staggered backwards […] Billows of fire rose around her, and a hot wind roared. She felt herself flung high into the sky, and from there she looked down on a dreadful scene. The whole earth boiled with flames and black smoke. The noise was terrible – a howling and crashing and cracking – and finally, when the firestorm subsided, there came a silence that was more terrible still.
She was found by Mrs Brenda Beeson, who heard her despairing words and took it upon herself to become the Prophet’s interpreter to the world. Althea has remained trapped in her vision ever since and Mrs Beeson is the town’s only conduit to the Prophet’s wisdom. Certain Althea is hearing the voice of God, instructing the town how it can be saved from the end of the world, Mrs Beeson has passed on the instructions as she interprets them, encouraging the town to give up such things as Althea has murmured - “no singing” for example – in the idea that such strength of will will encourage goodness and save the town.
Nickie comes to learn of all this and finds herself fascinated by Mrs Beeson and her determination to be the defender of goodness and to root out any and all sinners. Surely, especially in such difficult times, being good and standing for goodness is the right thing to do.
Nickie nodded, imagining it: everyone kind, everyone good, no creepiness, no wars.
“So the more of these trouble spots we can find, the better off we’ll be,” Mrs Beeson went on, her voice becoming very stern. “Remember what I said about how one moldy strawberry can ruin the whole basket? We’re not going to let that happen. We’re going to make this a good and godly town through and through.”
But in trying so hard to do Mrs Beeson’s version of good, Nickie finds herself hurting others in the town and ends up struggling to understand for herself just what good and evil means.
Mrs Beeson herself is a very, very creepy character. She’s so caught up in the struggle she sees herself fighting that she’s actually lost all sense of what really is good and right. As she sees it, God is talking to Althea, therefore what the Prophet says must be right and must be acted upon and all thought or compassion be damned. She’s not actually a bad person, but she’s a very, very scary one, and she’s carried the whole town with her, to the point that anyone Mrs Beeson labels a sinner is forced to wear a bracelet that makes a piercing hum at all time, making the wearer shunned and surely driving them crazy. In a way, the whole situation reminded me of the 1980’s book, The Wave (wikipedia link), which also showed the way a seeming good idea can get seriously out of hand, although the idea in question there turned out to be fascism rather that fundamental religion.
As the world situation reaches critical, so too does the one in Yonwood as Mrs Beeson realises Althea has been saying “no dogs” and insists that all the residents must give up their dogs. Nickie has adopted a dog in secret and, already uncertain after what happened to her friend Grover due to her well-intentioned tale telling, finds this the final straw. After her dog it taken and she is unable to rescue him, she decides to face down the Prophet directly and ask how she could possibly mean for the townspeople to give up their dogs.
Nickie’s confrontation with Althea is very nicely written and sets in motion the conclusion of the book. The town is brought back from the brink (as too is the world, at least temporarily and largely due to another Yonwood citizen who was on Mrs Beeson’s hitlist) and, while she never gets to live in Yonwood, Nickie’s family is reunited as she and her mother go to join her father at his secret project in California. I was a little surprised that everything settled down in the end and suddenly the book seemed to have only the slimmest of connections to Ember and the first two books.
It was a nice touch to see that maybe apocalypse isn’t inevitable and we can come close without stepping over the line, which is what happens in The Prophet of Yonwood. The problem is that once you do hit that line, it’s game over and no second chances. The world escaped this time, but what about next time?
But I came to realise that the point of the book wasn’t to set us up for Ember (although that is done in the background), but to investigate the idea of doing evil in the name of good and watching Nickie’s character grow over the course of her time in Yonwood. In doing those things, the book succeeds, and I think succeeds well, largely through the creepiness of Mrs Beeson and the revelation the Prophet brings at the end. But the book is disadvantaged by its labelling as one of The Books of Ember, because really, it isn’t.
There is an epilogue at the end, titled What Happened Afterwards that gives a quick summary of the next fifty years of so, partly to let us know what happened to the rest of the characters, but really to tie us back into the Ember storyline. One one level I found it annoying as the heart of the book didn’t need it. But at the same time, I also appreciated it as it did keep this book at least lightly tied to the others. I can see Ms duPrau finding herself in a dilemma – she had a story she wanted to tell that could be best told in a troubled world and she had one of those already created, so she used it. But the book then had to be forced to tie in the the rest of the Ember books in a way that didn’t really suit it. If the references to Nickie’s father’s project (go on, guess what he was working on!) and the epilogue were dropped, the book would have stood nicely on its own, exploring its own themes. Instead it was shoehorned into being a story that didn’t suits its heart so well, and I suspect many readers, me included, came into it expecting an Ember book and getting something different. Because of that, I gave it a low grade of 6/10. If it had been a totally standalone book, it would easily have got a 7 and might have even talking me into giving it an 8.
So I guess my final word is to say please try to read this without any preconceived ideas. It’ll work a lot better if you do.
The Prophet of Yonwood
The Books of Ember, Book 3
The Books of Ember: