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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Imagine standing on a subway platform underneath the harried bustle of New York City. At an odd hour, the station might be empty and downright quiet — except for the drips of water and scurry of rats that echo against the station's cavernous walls. Eventually, a warm breath of air reaches toward you from the tunnel's darkness. As the moments tick by, that breath of air builds into a wind that dries your eyes and causes your hair to fly. Then the noise starts — at first just a steady percussion of clanging metal that grows louder and louder until the ringing and shudders rock you. The wind blasts with almost enough force to push you off the platform and onto the tracks. The screeching rhythm of metal against metal begins to sound in your own heart. The rush builds within you. A train is near. The anticipation of something powerful speeding toward you consumes your senses. When the steel beast finally pours into the station, there's relief and amazement. Such a glorious train! Filled with wonder, you climb inside and welcome the jolt as the beast takes off again, racing through the city's mysteries.
That is exactly what it's like to read Neal Shusterman's powerful new novel Downsiders. The story barrels down on us quickly, with building force, and then whisks us off into mysteries we never before imagined.
Anyone who thinks New York City's wonders only stretch skyward will be dazzled by the bejeweled underground world into which Shusterman leads us. Downsiders is the story of a group of people who live beneath New York City in tunnels and cavesunderskyscrapers and the subway tunnels that keep the city alive. The Downsiders, as these people are called, have never seen the sun. With pale skin and wide eyes adapted to darkness, they navigate this underground labyrinth by the breeze that wafts through the passageways. They also encrust the tunnel walls and dress themselves with the debris (diamonds, glass shards, lint, torn fabric, pop tops from soft drink cans, old subway tokens) that falls through the cracks of the world topside and lands in their realm. Though Downsiders depend on Topsiders for these fragments, Downsiders distrust the world above and keep quiet and to themselves.
Shusterman brings this underground world to life in an utterly believable way with colorful descriptions, engaging dialogue, and a lively pace. However, his magic doesn't stop there. Downsiders is more than a peek into a surprising world. It's a story about what happens when cultures clash, about how our cultural identities and worldviews are shaped, about prejudice, creativity, and hope.
What do you suppose happens when a 14-year-old Downside boy wanders up topside in search of medicine for his fevered sister? Though it's prohibited for Talon to walk the world above ground, he takes the risk in order to help his sister. While there, he meets a lonely Topsider named Lindsay — who shakes away her fear of this stranger when she realizes how desperate for help he is. An awkward, forbidden friendship ignites between the two. Talon even risks his life to bring Lindsay Downside so she can see his world.
Friendship is not all that ignites. An intricate pattern of events begins to unfold in the wake of their meeting — events that could bring an end to both of their worlds. Separately and together, Talon and Lindsay are forced to confront the ideas and customs they've come to know as truth. Psychologically, each of them shatters and dies in the commotion that builds around them. As new truths sink into their hearts, they become new people — wiser, but perhaps more vulnerable too. Beyond these personal rites of passage, readers witness the transformation Talon's Downsider culture makes as it defends itself against the Topside.
Dare I make this comparison? I will. Shusterman's Downsiders is a lively social satire that has as much to say to all of us — adults and teens alike — as Orwell's Animal Farm, and because of its exhilarating pace and modern tone, it certainly will impact younger readers more than Orwell's classic.
Hop on Shusterman's train. You'll be amazed at the wonders that lurk in worlds below.