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The Prophet of Yonwood: Jeanne Duprau

The Prophet of Yonwood is a prequel to The City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau. It takes place 50 years before people first go below ground to live in Ember, during a time when the world is on the precipice of war.

The story is set in the small town of Yonwood, North Carolina. 11-year-old Nickie goes to Yonwood with her aunt so that they can clean up an inherited mansion, and prepare it for sale. Nickie immediately falls in love with Yonwood, and with the rambling old house, and sets herself a series of goals for the visit:

  1. To live with her parents in her great-grandfather's house in Yonwood (instead of in their current apartment in Philadelphia, and instead of her mother and aunt selling the house).
  2. To fall in love.
  3. To do something to help the world.

Nickie soon discovers, however, that Yonwood is not so peaceful as she had imagined. A local resident has had a terrible vision of war and fire, and lies half-conscious in her bed, mumbling to herself. The town's leaders, especially the bustling Brenda Beeson, set about interpreting the prophet's garbled words. They insist that if the townspeople can correctly interpret and follow the prophet's warnings, the people of Yonwood, at least, can saved. This seems reasonable to Nickie, because the country is so close to war, and because Nickie's own father is off on a war-related mission.

In between sorting through her great-grandfather's papers, hiding her new dog from her aunt, befriending a local boy who collects snakes, and spying on a mysterious neighbor, Nickie tries to help Mrs. Beeson to uncover any wicked behavior in the town. She accepts that the town has banned music and lights and other activities that the prophet, mysteriously, has forbidden. She accepts the ostracism of local residents who don't bend to Mrs. Beeson's will. But when the sacrifices demanded by the town start to hurt people she cares about, Nickie begins to question the words of the prophet.

The Prophet of Yonwood is a cautionary tale about the trampling of individual rights in the name of security. It's about what extremes of fear, suspicion and insecurity can do to otherwise rational people. Nickie is a likeable character who is initially swayed by the adults in her life, but ultimately comes to trust her own judgement. I did find The Prophet of Yonwood to be the faintest trifle heavy-handed in its treatment of trampled human rights, but overall I enjoyed this book. I especially liked that it set things up for The City of Ember, a book that I thought was wonderful.

The Prophet of Yonwood also reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Enright's books (the Melendy books and especially Gone-Away Lake). Jeanne Duprau has that same quality of understanding what kids will think is cool. You have Nickie digging around in an interesting old house, and going for walks with her dog in the woods, and decoding secret messages from her father, and watching Grover feed his snakes. Despite the dark things happening in Yonwood, and the cold winter weather during most of the story, I still kind of wanted to there, hanging around with Nickie, having adventures. I think that lots of kids will feel the same way.

You can find Jeanne Duprau's website here. My favorite paragraph from her bio is this: "Jeanne DuPrau doesn’t have children, but she has two nephews, a niece, and a dog. The dog lives with her. His name is Ethan. Jeanne and Ethan get along well, though their interests are different. Ethan is not very fond of reading, for example, and Jeanne doesn’t much like chasing squirrels. But they agree on walks, naps, and trips in the car to surprise destinations." I like it when authors that I like have a sense of humor.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.