Monday, September 14, 2009

The Unnameables: Thinking the unthinkable

Sometimes a book just walks into your life at the right time.

First, I saw this tweet on the Kirkus Twitter. The most tragically overlooked book of 2008? If Vicky Smith says it is so, then it's probably true.

Second, my husband was working from home one day and over lunch we got into a discussion of Project Runway. Though I can't sew a stitch, I love clothes and I always enjoy seeing the PR challenges. He, being, well, a guy, can't understand the PR allure.

"Why make these crazy clothes that aren't even practical?" he asked.

"I like to think of the PR challenges more as art, and art doesn't always have to be wearable."

"But what's the point of clothing that isn't wearable?"

The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem (Harcourt, 2008) tackles just this kind of question. It's set on an island in a time that is, well, right about now. The people of the island formed their government and society around a book: A Frugal Compendium of Home Arts and Farme Chores by Capability C. Craft (1680) as Amended and Annotated by the Island Council of Names (1718-1809). On the island, occupation and name are the two most important things in the world. Your surname comes from your occupation, hence the island has names like Carpenter and Glazer and Potter, but no Weasley, Malfoy or Chang. Things in nature are named for their function, too. A bee, for example, is a Honeybug, and a maple tree is a Sap Tree.

In the midst of all this practicality is Medford Runyuin, who was rescued from a shipwreck as a baby and raised by Boyce Carver. Boyce has taught Medford the carving occupation, which Medford enjoys. His talent at carving, however, is also Medford's biggest shame: He's using his carving talents to make things that have no purpose. Useless Objects, they're called on the island. Useless Objects cannot have names, and making Unnameable things is grounds for exile.

Enter the Goatman. (Come on, do I really have to say anything else? There's a Goatman!) Thanks to his wanderings, Medford knows that this is not the first time a Goatman has come to the island. Revealing this knowledge guessed it, a really good way for Medford to get kicked out of the only home he's ever known. Only it's not so easy to hide a Goatman who can control the wind.

Kirkus was totally right about The Unnameables. I hadn't heard of it before I read that tweet, and it was tragically overlooked. Booream's characters live in modern years but they speak, for the most part, like they're still in 1809. It's a third-person MG allegory, a look at what can happen if we all forget that the arts are just as important a part of life as the practical things. The language can be a little hard to get through at first, but readers who stick with it will enjoy Medford's company and his sense of humor. It reminded me a lot of The Giver, with the adolescent transition into a career and the one boy who is separated from his peers by his simply having emotions.

Don't overlook this one. To do so is simply Unnameable.

Ellen Booraem's website
|| Kirkus review

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