Streams of Babel, by Carol Plum-Ucci, is a book that I've been interested in since first hearing about it in Notes from the Horn Book last May. And it did not disappoint. Streams of Babel is set in 2002, in New Jersey, in the emotional shadow of September 11th, as local residents gradually become aware that bioterrorists have poisoned their water. The book opens, in dramatic fashion, with the death of 17-year-old Cora Holman's mother from a mysterious flu. Cora and several of her neighbors are also ill. Hints of the terrorists' act gradually unfold. This isn't an over-the-top, post-apocalypse story. The compelling thing about it is how current and possible it all feels, with terrorists chatting in Internet cafes, and the government trying to track them down.
The viewpoint shifts, via first-person chapters, between that of Cora and those of several other young adults, including a boy from Pakistan who is working as a virtual spy for the US government. These narration changes accomplish two important things. First, the characters are all quite fully developed, interesting and three-dimensional. Second, the changing perspective makes it relatively easy for the author to include cliff-hangers, and keep the reader compulsively turning the pages. Also, the changing narrators allow the ultimate cliffhanger - the fact that the reader can't know who will survive.
I read this book in one long sitting, unable to put it down. Streams of Babel is the perfect combination of suspenseful thriller and in-depth character study. I especially liked Cora, damaged after spending three years ashamed of her mother's drug addiction, afraid to let anyone else in. The young spy from Pakistan, Shahzad, is bright, conflicted about America, but loyal to the people who are kind to him. Cora's neighbor Owen, though popular, is a hyper-introvert, someone who "would love six weeks on a deserted island". Owen's older brother, Scott is a fixer, determinedly suppressing his own disappointment over not being able to go to college. Their friend, Rain, is beautiful and privileged, but surprisingly determined to help people. I liked them all, in some cases because of their faults.
Here are a few quotes, to give you a feel for Plum-Ucci's writing:
"I had gotten this strange compulsion last fall to start taking pictures around Trinity Falls on Sundays. It kept me out of the house on my day off, for one thing. For another, it made me feel like I belonged to the place instead of like some squatter, some daughter of an addict. Through a lens, the most beautiful parts of Trinity came clear. Azalea gardens in bloom in spring. Trees that lined streets in perfect, royal arches. Lawns as thick as Persian carpets and green as Ireland. People hung American flags off porches and trimmed real hedges around their swimming pools in Trinity." (Page 16, Cora)
"I actually like being inside Saint Ann's Hospital. I like taking my shift breaks in the emergency room nursing station, watching the medics fly around, hearing the ring of oh-so-many phones. But tonight, I didn't feel that sense of control over an out-of-hand universe that usually comes with being in the ER." (Page 46, Scott"
"I want to say something to Allah, so I face the east. "Perhaps I am a coward, Great Allah," I whisper. "Perhaps I should feel ready to reach past the Internet and mere images of reality. So if you please, maybe I would like to be a bigger part of reality, as my father would have wished. Perhaps I would like to taste a ballpark frank, view a cathedral, use chopsticks, visit a theme park, wear Gap jeans, smell a Jew, go to school, see a good doctor, eat Kentucky Fry, watch the Yankees, own an ATM card, touch a piano, read the Shakespeare in the English..."" (Page 182, Shahzad)
I picked this book up because of the premise. But I'll remember it because of the characters. And I'll be looking for Plum-Ucci's other work. Highly recommended for teens and adults.
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
Publication Date: May 1, 2008
Source of Book: Library copy
Other Blog Reviews: Mrs. F-B's Book Blog, Regina Reads, Ms. Yingling Reads, A True Reality
Author Interviews: Little Willow
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.