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Book Review

This dystopian novel by Neal Shusterman is the first in the "Unwind Dystology" series and is published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Unwind is written for ages 12 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

After the "Heartland War," a civil battle between those who believed in abortion on demand and those considered to be pro-life, a set of constitutional amendments was passed called "The Bill of Life." These amendments stated that from the moment of conception, human life couldn't be ended. But, from the age of 13 until a child reaches 18, a parent or guardian may choose to retroactively abort their child. This process is called "unwinding." The child is not technically killed, as every useful piece of its body is recycled into the bodies of other people in need.

Connor Lassiter, a 16-year-old troublemaker, has discovered the papers his parents have signed ordering his unwinding. He escapes before the authorities come for him, but the Juvenile Police, or Juvey-cops as they are known, and his parents track him through his cellphone. Connor doesn't give up easily, and instead flees across a divided highway as the police shoot tranquilizer darts at him. A Cadillac sideswipes him. Inside is Lev Caldor, a 13-year-old boy, willingly being unwound as a tithe to God. Connor makes the snap decision to use Lev as a shield from the tranquilizer bullets. Lev wants desperately to return to his parents and be unwound, but Pastor Dan, his family's spiritual counselor, yells for him to run away with Connor.

Lev is accidentally hit by a tranquilizer dart. Connor carries him off the road. At the same time, a bus from a State Home swerves and rolls over. One of the passengers, Risa, is another teen set to be unwound. Although not a delinquent, Risa has no parents. As she has not been able to excel over others at the home in academics, sports or musical ability, Risa has been ordered unwound to make room for a new baby. Risa uses the bus accident to escape her fate and follows Connor and Lev into the woods.

Risa and Connor know they can't really trust Lev, but decide to keep him with them anyway, as they can't believe anyone truly wants to be unwound. When they come to a town, Connor hears a baby crying. He knows the child has been "storked," abandoned on someone's front steps. The homeowner is now responsible for the child unless the mother can be found. Years ago, Connor's family was storked. Instead of keeping the baby, they kept it inside the house for the day and then storked another neighbor. A week later, the same baby was left on their doorstep, only now it was very ill and soon died. The entire neighborhood attended the funeral. Connor realized that the baby had been passed around with no one to care for it until it finally died. He can't let that happen again, and so he approaches the homeowner who then insists he and Risa take the child.

Risa, Connor, Lev and the baby follow a group of teenagers onto a school bus. They hope to escape between leaving the school bus and entering the building, but they can't. They hide out in a girls' bathroom. Without Connor and Risa knowing, Lev ducks out and heads for the office. He tells the secretary that he's been kidnapped by two unwinds. She calls the police. He then uses the phone to call home.

Pastor Dan answers. He tells Lev that his kidnapping was never reported to the police. The authorities believe he's been tithed. Pastor Dan convinced Lev's parents to see the incident as God's providence. Lev begs the pastor to tell his parents that he wants to be tithed, but Pastor Dan won't do it. Lev realizes the pastor never believed all the platitudes he taught about the value of being a tithe. He wants Lev to escape and live a full life.

Lev is devastated by the knowledge that he'll be the cause of Connor's and Risa's unwinding. He flees the office and pulls the fire alarm. Connor and Risa are lucky enough to encounter a teacher willing to help them. As everyone exits the building, the teacher sends them to an antique shop in town and tells them to ask for "Sonia." Lev tries to catch up with them as they escape so he can apologize, but the crowd of students prevents him.

Sonia, the owner of the antique shop, runs a safe house for unwinds. They are kept in a hidden cellar until they can find transportation to another safe house. Connor, Risa and the baby spend a week in the dark basement with three other unwinds — Mai, Roland and Hayden. Hayden's parents divorced, and since neither parent wanted the other to have custody of him, they chose to have him unwound. Roland, a muscular teen with disciplinary issues, beat his stepfather in an attempt to protect his mother. His mom, however, took her husband's side of the fight and signed Roland's unwinding papers. Mai's parents kept having children until they got the boy they truly wanted. Since they couldn't afford to raise all six children, Mai was scheduled to be unwound.

Unable to sleep, Hayden tells the unwinds' favorite urban legend, the story of Humphrey Dunfees. Humphrey's unstable parents decided to have him unwound but then changed their minds after their son's body had been redistributed. Mr. Dunfee worked for the government and was able to track down the recipients of his son's parts. He and his wife supposedly killed them and tried to put their son back together.

Several days later, Sonia calls each of the teens upstairs, one at a time. She has them write a letter to someone they love. They are to write what they want the person to know, should they die. Sonia keeps the letters for a year after the teens turn 18. If they can keep from being unwound, they are to return and take back the letter. If they don't return, Sonia mails it.

The next day, the kids are shuttled to another safe house. The teacher who helped Risa and Connor offers to adopt the baby. Risa and Connor spend the next few weeks bouncing between houses until they end up with about 100 other unwinds in a warehouse.

Lev meets a teen nicknamed CyFi. CyFi is Umber, the name now used to describe a dark-skinned person. He speaks in an archaic urban dialect that used to be prevalent before the Heartland War. CyFi tells how after an accident, he received a full frontal lobe transplant from an unwind. CyFi is traveling to Joplin, Mo., but Lev doesn't know why. He decides to go with CyFi. One day, CyFi starts walking and talking differently, as if he's another person. Lev nervously follows him as CyFi enters a store selling Christmas items and steals an ornament.

Afterward, CyFi runs to a playground and cries. He smashes the ornament and then tells Lev to empty the pocket of his coat. Inside, Lev finds a treasure of stolen gold and diamond jewelry. CyFi insists he didn't steal the items and that Lev must hide them somewhere. Lev buries all but a diamond bracelet, and the boys continue their journey. Lev pawns the bracelet for money. He comes to realize that CyFi is being influenced by the brain transplanted in his head.

CyFi's unwind must have come from Joplin and is trying to get back home. CyFi tells Lev that the other boy, Tyler, didn't seem to realize that he was unwound. CyFi can hear his thoughts inside of his own head, and sometimes they overwhelm him. When they arrive in Joplin, Tyler directs them to his former house, where the police, his parents and CyFi's are waiting for him. Tyler is allowed to go into the backyard where he digs up a box of buried stolen items. He gives them to the police and then begs his parents not to unwind him. Distraught, Tyler's parents are speechless until Lev insists they put the boy at ease and promise not to unwind him. In the resulting reunion, Lev makes his escape.

Soon after Christmas, Risa, Connor and the other unwinds are packed four into a crate. The crates are loaded onto a plane and delivered to The Graveyard. Unfortunately, four boys die from suffocation. Connor and Risa survive the journey and settle into their new lives. The Graveyard is a place where decommissioned planes are sent. The Admiral, an older military man, runs the graveyard. The children live in the abandoned planes and everyone has a job. Risa ends up in the medical clinic while Connor becomes a maintenance man. The Admiral fears someone is trying to undermine his authority within the camp and so takes Connor into his confidence. Five of the Admiral's top teen aides were murdered. Connor tries to find out who did it. Connor suspects Roland, but doesn't have the evidence to prove it. Lev arrives at the camp, but does not want to reconnect with Connor or Risa. His time with CyFi and being alone have hardened him. He joins up with the group conspiring against the Admiral. It is not led by Roland, but by the Admiral's personal pilot, Cleaver.

Mai also joined with Cleaver, as her boyfriend was one of the teens that suffocated in the plane. Cleaver recruits Lev, Mai and another boy for a mission away from the graveyard. They will be injected with a special explosive, infiltrate a harvest camp, and blow up the harvesting facility.

Although Roland is not working with Cleaver, he is trying to take over the graveyard. By spreading rumors that the Admiral is running a "chop shop," selling unwinds to the highest bidder or using their body parts for himself, Roland is gaining a following.

Connor traps Roland in one of the transportation crates and questions him about the murders of the aides. Meanwhile, the other unwinds start a riot and try to attack the Admiral. When they can't get him, they beat Cleaver to death. Connor arrives to stop all-out anarchy, but the Admiral has suffered a heart attack. The only one who can fly him to a hospital is Roland. Connor releases him from the crate and he, Roland and Risa take the Admiral to the hospital. Roland betrays them and all the unwinds in the graveyard to the Juvey-cops, hoping to get a reward for their capture. His plan backfires when the cops tell him they've known about the graveyard for years but allow it to exist as it helps keep homeless unwinds from living on the streets and becoming criminals.

Roland, Risa and Connor are sent to a harvest camp to be unwound. It is the same camp that Lev has infiltrated. Before Risa and Connor can be unwound, Mia and the other terrorist blow up the facility. Lev does not detonate himself. Instead, he helps the injured teens to safety and willingly turns himself into the police. He is visited in his cell by Pastor Dan, who explains that Lev's actions have changed the face of the unwind industry.

A law has already passed changing the age limit of unwinding to 17. Risa is left paralyzed by the explosion, but refuses the transplants to heal her as then she could be unwound at a later date. Handicapped people can't be unwound. While Connor is in a coma, he's given transplants for his amputated arm and injured eye. When he wakes up, he is horrified to learn that his arm came from Roland. Risa assures him that he controls it now. Connor is given the identity card of one of the harvest camp's dead guards so that he can escape unwinding. The authorities are told that he died in the explosion. The Admiral refuses a heart transplant and so is no longer capable of running the graveyard. Connor and Risa take charge of saving the unwinds.

The Admiral returns to his home. He and his ex-wife are the parents on whom the legend of Humphrey Dunfees is based. They were forced to sign their son, Harlan, over for unwinding. The Admiral has contacted all the recipients of his son's body over the years. On what would have been his son's 26th birthday, the Admiral gathered them all together at his ranch in Texas. As the people mingle, they begin sharing memories they have of Harlan. Finally, the Admiral calls his son's name, and all the people turn to him. One calls him "dad." The Admiral and his wife welcome their "son" home.

Christian Beliefs

Lev is being unwound as a tithe to God, because he is the 10th child. Pastor Dan tells him that God doesn't ask for the first fruits but the best fruits. Lev tells Connor that tithing and storking are in the Bible. He uses Moses as an example of being storked. Connor wonders how a good God can let a child be born who isn't wanted or loved. At first Lev believes his situation is a test from God to see if he will remain faithful to his calling to be a tithe. Pastor Dan's insistence that Lev see his "non-identity" as proof that God wants him to live, unnerves him. CyFi tells Lev a similar thing, that it may have been God's plan to have Connor pull him from the car and force him to escape.

Instead of helping his faith, their arguments make Lev doubt everything about God. A line from Gone with the Wind is quoted invoking God as a witness to an oath. Lev's parents don't believe in IQ tests, saying everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Lev is angry that his parents love God more than they loved him. He thinks he may go to hell for his thoughts. In the transportation crates, the boys with Connor discuss their beliefs about unwinding. One boy says your soul goes to heaven when you die.

Connor wonders if this is true since if their own parents didn't want them, wouldn't they go to the other place? Another boy says that perhaps unwinds don't even have souls as God would already know they are going to be unwound. Roland asks for a priest before he is unwound, but none is sent to talk to him. Pastor Dan tells Lev that he's left his church, not his faith. He still believes in God, just not a church that would allow human tithing. Lev says he wants to believe in that God.

Other Belief Systems

Lev once witnessed a friend's Bar Mitzvah ceremony. CyFi says that Tyler's thoughts are like those of a ghost that doesn't know it's dead. The true story of someone trying to sell his soul on eBay is presented.

Connor and the boys in his crate discuss what happens to an unwind's soul. One thinks that because all the pieces of their body are kept alive, their soul is divided among those pieces. Another believes the soul is indivisible so must stretch out like a giant balloon among all the recipients. Connor isn't sure he believes in a soul, but a person's consciousness has to go somewhere when they're unwound. He remembers a man he met who had the arm of an unwind. The arm could perform card tricks that the man never learned.

Connor also wonders if your soul or consciousness is shredded between body parts. Lev comments to himself that Cleaver's love of chaos has become his religion. Luck is invoked several times — a car swerving out of the way is good luck and a certain brick path is bad luck. A teacher wishes Connor and Risa good luck.

Authority Roles

Most of the parents in the novel are seen as incredibly weak and self-centered. Instead of protecting their teenagers or seeking to get them help for troubling behavior, they choose to unwind them and not deal with the problem. Lev's parents are seen as loving but clueless as to the true meaning of being unwound.

The Admiral does not treat the unwinds with love, but he does respect them. He has a list of rules for their behavior in the graveyard that demonstrates that he believes they are worthwhile individuals worthy of respect and life. The Juvey-cops are seen as manipulative, self-serving and insensitive to the fate of the unwinds. As a spiritual mentor, Pastor Dan comes across as loving Lev and wanting the best for him.


God's name is used alone and with my, dear, d--n and h--- are used. A-- is spoken alone and with pain-in-the. Other objectionable words are suck and crap.

Connor is sideswiped by a car and bruises his ribs. He hits Pastor Dan as he tries to get Lev out of the car. Lev bites Connor's arm. The Juvey-cops shoot at Connor with tranquilizer darts. A bus swerves to miss the accident and rolls over, killing the driver and injuring several people. Risa and Connor use a Juvey-cop's tranquilizer gun against him in order to escape.

Risa wrenches Connor's arm behind his back when she thinks he's becoming too physical with her. Lev hits a pawnbroker over the head, rendering the man unconscious. Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent of potential violence between Connor and Roland. Roland threatens to rape Risa in the warehouse bathroom as a way to provoke Connor into a fight so he can kill him. When Connor pretends not to care about Risa, Roland backs off.

As they are being sorted into transportation crates, Connor punches another boy so he won't be put in a crate with Roland. Connor uses a gun to force Roland into a crate that he then locks so he can question him. Cleaver, Mia and another unwind tell how they knocked the Admiral's teenage aides unconscious and locked them in a crate without air holes so they suffocated. Connor sees their dead bodies.

The unwinds get caught up in their riot. When they can't get to the Admiral, they find Cleaver, who they believe is working with the Admiral, and beat him to death. Roland attacks Connor in the harvest camp, nearly killing him. Mia and the other clapper are accidently detonated by camp guards. The resulting explosion destroys the harvesting clinic. Many unwinds and guards are injured and killed. Lev manages to help a mangled Connor and paralyzed Risa to safety. He pulls several other injured people out as well.

Roland's unwinding is described in detail. Although the procedure is painless, it is incredibly disturbing. Roland is kept conscious and alert for the entire process as teams of doctors disassemble him. He senses his body being removed piece by piece as a kind nurse talks with him. Eventually, he can no longer answer her vocally, so she asks him to blink if he understands her. Then she lets him know that he won't be able to blink anymore. The doctors no longer tell him what they're doing as they take apart his brain, but it is evident that some part of Roland's consciousness is aware of the procedure. This continues until there is nothing left of him on the table.


Connor shares a brief kiss with his girlfriend before he escapes from his home. He and Risa kiss several times. Once they are in the harvest camp, their kisses are more passionate. Roland threatens to rape Risa as a way to spur Connor into a fight.

Mai and her boyfriend make out passionately while waiting in the warehouse. Their behavior isn't graphically described, but other teens watch them. Several adults tell Connor that if he can get Risa pregnant he will give her nine more months of life since pregnant girls can't be unwound.

CyFi was storked to a homosexual couple, so two fathers raised him. Homosexual marriages have been outlawed, but CyFi says his fathers made their relationship official by getting married.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Champagne is served at Lev’s tithing party. The Admiral drinks whiskey while telling his past to Connor.

Stealing: CyFi is influenced by Tyler’s mind to steal shiny things, including a gold Christmas ornament and jewelry.

This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can't find at reviewrequests@family.org.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

12 and up


Neal Shusterman






Record Label



Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers


On Video

Year Published



United Kingdom Coventry Inspiration "Simply the Book" Award, 2009/2010; Virginia Readers Choice Award, 2009/2010; Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Book Award List


We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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