illustration of Susie in the clouds with her charm bracelet above her head

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

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Analysis and Review

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1828

Drawing on folkloric and religious motifs and ideas, Alice Sebold presents a remarkable, complex, and comforting vision of heaven as the platform from which Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbor at the age of fourteen, tells her story. It is a heaven that indeed has many “mansions,” one of which is the “wide wide Heaven,” which can provide one’s every desire. It also grants omniscience to the narrator. The word Susie’s grandfather has for the dominant quality of this heaven is “comfort,” and oddly comforting, indeed, is Alice Sebold’s novel because it postulates a vision of heaven that begins with an “intake” level of simplicity that matches the experience level of the fourteen-year-old victim and becomes increasingly complex as Susie watches the changes her death effects on her family and friends over a dozen or so years following her death. Sebold’s conception of heaven is a complex and progressive spirit world in which the departed continue to grow and develop; thus, those individuals who die while children “mature” over the years as they would have done had they not died prematurely. Found in a number of formal religions, this progressive conception of the afterlife is, in the hands of Alice Sebold, a moving yet unsentimental perspective from which to tell the story of every parent’s worst nightmare.

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Sebold has asked the unthinkable question, yet one writ large in every day’s news headlines: What if one’s young daughter does not come home for dinner one evening? How do parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, police and the rest of the community react to the growing conviction that the child has been murdered? How do they react when a dog brings home “a body part,” an elbow that, for the police at least, confirms her murder? How do they react to the failure of the police investigation to find the body, despite finding convincing quantities of blood in the dirt of the cornfield? How do they react to the failure to find the killer, to bring him to justice? Only gradually and painfully can the family and the police conclude that the investigation is a murder investigation, that Susie Salmon had been abducted, murdered, and forever obliterated from the face of this Earth. Although other evidence is accumulated, the killer is never arrested, tried, convicted, and executed.

Sebold’s choice to have Susie Salmon tell her story from heaven as the first-person narrator in charge of her own story works brilliantly to satisfy the reader of the truth of her vision of heaven as a complex, multidimensioned spiritual reality, a wide place, a place fashioned after the dearest wishes of departed souls. To support her conception of this story, Sebold weaves together cultural myths, Christian scripture, and deeply embedded folk ideas about revenants (souls who return, usually in corporeal form, to the scenes of their lives and their deaths), who may communicate successfully but rarely clearly with those they have left behind, and who sometimes even exact vengeance upon their murderers. Thus, this novel is a wonderful ghost story. However, because it also embodies a vision of a secular heaven to which spirits journey in stages from the moment of their death and are granted in some way the righteous desires of their hearts, the novel is also a complex meditation on those desires, including the desire for retribution.

In Susie’s case, the desire for knowledge is paramount. She wants to learn all that she had not been able to learn in her short time on Earth, the knowledge that living brings of love, sex, work, thought, and family, to grow fully through the whole range of life’s experiences. Franny, her intake counselor, herself murdered by a wife abuser, assures her that that option is not available (an assertion that Susie will later test with startling consequences). At first, her heaven is that mansion to which female murder victims go, shaped in the familiar forms of school grounds and buildings where her heavenly growth begins. She and Holly, her best friend in heaven, discover that just about anything one can desire is available if desired enough and if one understands why one desires it. She and Holly realize, for instance, that Franny reminds them both very much of their mothers because they miss their mothers intensely. Susie’s second desire is to observe, at least, the whole lives she has left behind on Earth so that she and her companion can pretend better, a wish that is granted, thus making the omniscient possibilities of this narrative point of view credible as well as functional.

The ultimate embodiment of Susie’s wish is to return in physical form, at least for a few moments, to permit her to make love with Ray Singh years after her murder. She does so, “borrowing” the body of Ruth Connors, a classmate against whom she had “brushed” on her way out of life. That connection gives Ruth her life’s calling to write the lives of female victims and suggests also the power of love to transcend mortality. Sebold’s conception of heaven is not a place of “gritty reality” but a place where one has fun. It is also a place from which Susie can continue to see how, sometimes at great cost, the relationships and the sometimes tenuous connections among her friends and family are made and developed in the years following her disappearance and the ongoing consequences of her life and death for those still living. These relationships are the “lovely bones” of the novel’s title, the armature on which Susie herself grows in knowledge and acceptance to develop the figures of Sebold’s themes.

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Sebold avoids the pitfall of sentimentality by managing the tone and focusing on Susie’s reports of the psychological and physical effects of her murder on her family, on her classmates, on Detective Fenerman, and on the killer. For instance, in the character of Ruth Connors, poet and fearless and compulsive walker throughout Manhattan, Sebold focuses on identifying and commemorating all those women and children who were murdered or abused. Ruth is compelled to locate the places where these crimes occurred and to write the names of all such victims in her journal, doing “important work,” Susie tells us, “work that most people on Earth were too frightened even to contemplate” but which her “fans in heaven” cheer on. As Susie watches the lives she left behind, she also remembers when she and Ray Singh nearly but not quite kissed and they secretly witnessed Ruth Connors being scolded for drawing nudes that were too realistic for her art teacher’s comfort and that revealed her talent to be much greater than that of her art teacher.

Susie’s family members remember her in various ways as they deal with the intense pain, implacable and pervasive, that her murder generates. Susie’s mother Abigail in her pain withdraws from her husband, has a brief affair with Fenerman, and flees to the West Coast, working in a winery for several years and returning only when she learns of her husband’s stress- induced heart attack, thus reuniting with him eight years later. Jack is overcome by the loss of his daughter and obsessed with finding proof that Mr. Harvey is a viable suspect. Each day, when his consciousness wakes him, Jack’s guilt seeps in, poisoning his relationship with his wife and his other children, Lindsey and Buckley. His actions are those of a father deeply attached to his daughter and overwhelmed by loss and guilt. Thus, he is acutely sensible to “intimations” of her presence and of his culpability. The visions, sightings, and intuitions that Jack, Buckley, Ruth, Ray, and Lindsey experience are the results of Susie’s efforts to communicate with them. The police, however, require “hard evidence,” and Jack’s attempts to find it are interpreted as irrational at best and illegal in law, marking him in the minds of some as a dangerous and suspicious person. He pesters Fenerman to treat Mr. Harvey as a suspect to such an extent that the beleaguered detective orders him to quit calling and to cease in his attempts to investigate the case himself.

Susie also watches as Lindsey works hard to develop her identity as a young woman in her own right, not merely a living version of her dead sister. Helping her along this path are the attentions of Samuel Heckler, who gives Lindsay a present on the first Christmas after Susie’s death and receives a kiss from Lindsey in return. Susie in her heaven feels the electricity of the kiss and is “almost alive again.” Buckley, her four-year-old brother, is kept from the truth, so he continues to ask, “Where is Susie?” As Sam and Lindsey exchange presents, kiss, and begin their healing and life-long connection, Susie’s father finds a way to tell Buckley that his sister is dead. Taken during the first Christmas after Susie’s death (Christmas being the commemoration of the birth of Christ and thus a subtle promise of immortality), each of these moves begins the healing for Susie’s siblings and her father, but it will be a lengthy process and different for each person.

Learning that Mr. Harvey is her father’s prime suspect, Lindsey conspires with Jack to enter Harvey’s house and find evidence to support their suspicions. She is nearly caught by Harvey, who sees her escaping into the trees and knows he is discovered. Although Harvey immediately leaves town, Lindsey’s daring effort causes Harvey’s life to spin out of control and enables her to reunite with her father so that they can get on with their own lives after a fashion. Buckley, for instance, will, when he is in the seventh grade, develop a garden near the house, not exactly a “secret garden” but one that allows Susie to signal him by making the entire garden bloom. At the end, years later, through Susie’s omniscient witness, readers get to see Mr. Harvey, the serial rapist and her murderer, tumbled into deep snow, not to be found for several months. Nonetheless, justice so long delayed and achieved anonymously is denied for his victims and their families.

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Latest answer posted October 27, 2008, 5:04 am (UTC)

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Sebold’s vision of how the healing process progresses in different ways for each life relies upon a body of traditional belief, customs, and images, including newborns being given the names of the dead and the seasonal resurrections of gardens. Susie continues on her own journey of progression and exploration, returning occasionally to look in on the family members who are now reunited in her absence but who find her manifested in whatever way they want her to be.

Sources for Further Study

Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life 21 (July/August, 2002): 64.

Booklist 98 (May 1, 2002): 1510.

Library Journal 127 (May 15, 2002): 127.

New Statesman 15 (August 19, 2002): 39.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (July 14, 2002): 14.

Publishers Weekly 249 (June 17, 2002): 40.

Seventeen 61 (July, 2002): 152.

Time 160 (July 1, 2002): 62.

Historical Context

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Alice Sebold wrote The Lovely Bones in the late 1990s; the book first appeared in print in June 2002; and the story takes place in the 1970s. All of these dates prove significant. At the time of the writing, America was facing both a new decade and a new millennium. By the late 1990s, Americans saw the creation of the World Wide Web; engaged in debates over health care, social security reform, gun control; watched national sex scandals unfold (the Tailhook affair and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinski affair); sat riveted to the O. J. Simpson murder trial; and were stunned by the violence of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Sebold penned her story amid a growing awareness of, and concern with, issues of domestic, sexual, and teen violence. In many ways, her novel reflects these concerns as it reflects the cultural climate of the 1990s.

Its publication date, however, carries added significance. The novel, released less than a year after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., speaks directly to a nation's need for comfort. The Lovely Bones made its debut in an America forever stripped of its belief that terrorism and random violence happens elsewhere. The social and cultural atmosphere at this time radiated fear, distrust, sadness, anger, and grief. Although Sebold wrote this novel before the attacks, the subject matter echoes the contemporaneous concerns of America.

The novel also draws on the historical, cultural, social, and political issues of the 1970s. In many ways, America "came of age" in the 1970s as social change, discontent with the government, advances in civil rights for minorities and women, environmental concerns, and space exploration defined the decade. The Vietnam War, which sparked antiwar protests and student demonstrations, and the Watergate Scandal, which resulted in the resignation of a president, shattered the last vestiges of a naive America. Other changes arose in the 1970s that added to America's cultural and social climate, including the women's movement. Women's places in American life expanded into political and professional areas, and people began to question the traditional gender roles of women and men.

The changes of the 1970s figure into The Lovely Bones in several ways: first, through Sebold's female characters. Ruth Connors embodies the feminism of the 1970s with her avant-garde approach to her drawings, poetry, and reading. She refuses the constraints of the status quo in these areas as well as in the arena of acceptably feminine behavior and attire. However, whereas Ruth overtly embraces feminism, Susie's mother, Abigail, struggles to name her discontent. Abigail illustrates many of the women in the 1970s who did not publicly espouse feminism, yet whose desire to transcend the constraints of motherhood and wifehood drew on feminist principles. Secondly, the novel reflects the 1970s concern with the environment through the encroachment of building and industry into the Salmons' suburban neighborhood. Finally, the disturbing subject matter of a child's rape and murder, and Susie's refusal to sanitize the images of her death reflect the horrific pictures of the dead and dismembered of the Vietnam War. During the 1970s, images of violence entered the homes of suburban Americans through the television, and for the first time, Americans watched a war—complete with all of its horrors—from their living rooms. In The Lovely Bones, the tangible marks of violence that enter suburbia are not media images of war dead; rather, those marks are the objects of a raped and murdered girl.

Additional discussion on historical context:

Child Kidnappings
The publication of The Lovely Bones and its ascent to bestseller status came as much of the nation was gripped by the story of Elizabeth Smart, a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June, 2002. Pictures of Smart filled newspapers, television, and the Internet, in a repetition of a trend dating back to the 1980s of wall-to-wall coverage of the kidnappings of prepubescent and early adolescent girls for weeks, and sometimes months. Although the murder in Sebold’s novel takes place in 1973, its publication in the same month as the Smart kidnapping and its subsequent success as the Smart kidnapping continued to fill the media were both a coincidence and a sign of the increasing cultural interest in such stories.

New Age Religious Movements
Sebold’s novel is set in a nonreligious heaven where neither God nor Christ are apparently present, though this heaven clearly contains human souls that have the power to observe actions on Earth and can visit Earth and intervene in human affairs. These features may be inspired by the New Age movement, which began in the 1970s and steadily became more popular in the subsequent decades. The New Age does not advance a specific orthodox set of beliefs. Instead, it has as some of its common features a belief that angels and deceased humans can intervene in human life, an emphasis on the benevolent and nonjudgmental aspects of spirituality, and, typically, the belief in a diffused divine force emanating throughout the world, rather than the belief in a single, specific God who resides in heaven. A wave of spiritualism at least partially inspired by the New Age swept much of the nation in the decade leading up to the book's publication. This wave included many books that asserted that the dead could maintain relationships with living people. Deepak Chopra, one of the leaders of the New Age movement, sold millions of copies of his more than twenty-five books beginning in the late 1980s. He claimed that it was impossible for anyone to objectively determine if experiences such as channeling, alien encounters, and angelic visits were either true or false. This emphasis on the validity of one’s experiences, no matter how fantastic, and their immunity from any outside investigation, is another feature prominent in much of the New Age. The channeling of souls, ghostly visitations, and paranormal phenomena also became a staple feature of television shows such as The X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries. The idea of communing with the dead has a long history in America, where Ouija boards, séances, and ghost stories are all well-established in the national culture. However, the ease with which Susie transitions from life on Earth to life in heaven, as well as her unassuming ability to affect the living and remain in contact with Earth, are in sync with the New Age notions that the supernatural realm constantly affects humanity and that after death the soul is not permanently removed from Earth.

Literary Style

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Point of View

In The Lovely Bones, point of view, the perspective from which the story is told, plays a crucial role in the narrative. Generally, a novel's point of view consists of one of four traditional stances: first person, second person, third person, and third person omniscient. First person point of view presents the events of the story from the perception of a single character. Second person point of view involves the author telling the story as if it is happening to the reader. With third person point of view, the reader has no insight into the character's minds; therefore, he or she must make sense of the action as it takes place. Third person omniscient offers a "godlike" perspective, transcending time or place, allowing the reader to see the actions and to look into the minds of the characters to know their thoughts, feelings and motives.

Alice Sebold presents a story told from an omniscient first person point of view, the perspective of Susie Salmon, who is dead. Susie, from her vantage point in heaven, sees everything—actions, motivations, thoughts—so her narration functions like third person omniscient, except that she tells the story in first person. Susie's access to the minds of other characters provides readers with this same access. In addition, as an omniscient first person narrator telling the story from beyond the limitations of earthly time, she also can and does experience many of the characters' memories. For example, she sees and relates incidents from her killer, Mr. Harvey's, childhood and his past killings. Because of her omniscience, Susie often glimpses intensely personal thoughts and actions, such as her mother's first tryst with Detective Fenerman, or her mother's internal thoughts about motherhood.

This combination of third person omniscient and first person points of view proves an innovative move on Sebold's part. Few novels offer the perspective of a dead protagonist—especially one who has been brutally raped and murdered. However, this new point of view makes the disturbing subject matter bearable and also allows Sebold to inject some humor and lightness into a rather horrifying story. Because she sees everything and because she relates what she sees, Susie provides the reader with opportunities to sympathize and or identify with various characters. In addition, because this omniscient viewpoint filters through a first person or personal voice, it also emerges as a specific perspective: sometimes angry, sometimes confused, sometimes spunky, and sometimes humorous, which carries with it a distinctive personality.

Setting

Setting includes the time, place, and culture in which the action of the narrative takes place. Time and place emerge as crucial elements in understanding the setting in The Lovely Bones. Traditionally, time can involve three elements: historical period, duration, and the perception of time by the characters. Sebold uses dates at various points throughout the narrative; in fact, the novel opens with a specific date, December 6, 1973. Immediately, the reader understands the historical time—the early 1970s—as well as the seasonal time—winter. However, as the story progresses, the historical periods shift as Susie takes the reader into the past and alludes to the future. For example, after giving us the date of her death, she offers a contemporary reference to the pictures of missing children on milk cartons and in the daily mail. This reference raises questions regarding the time period from which Susie is telling the story. Sebold's use of time shifts—the narration slides among past, present, and future—ties very closely to elements of place.

Like the shifts in time, the location of the story shifts between heaven and earth. Most of the action itself occurs on earth with the telling occurring in heaven. Some action does, however, take place in heaven: Susie meets Mr. Harvey's other victims in heaven; she and her roommate, Holly, explore; she dances with her grandfather. However, these actions do not necessarily propel the plot (the pattern of carefully selected events), but they do expand the story (all the events which are to be depicted). Both place and time closely relate to the coming-of-age element in the book, as well as to the themes of loss and grief.

Foreshadowing and Flashback

For the most part, Sebold's novel follows the traditional structure of plot. However, the events do not necessarily unfold in chronological fashion. For instance, the novel opens with Susie's murder, and as events unfold, establishes a relationship between events. To understand the causality, the reader needs background information, which Sebold presents through the use of flashback, a device that offers actions that occurred before the beginning of the story. Once Sebold establishes the murder, she has Susie look backward to how the murder occurred. As with point of view and setting, Sebold also complicates the traditional idea of plot. For example, in chapter one, Susie discusses her murder and includes a detail about a neighborhood dog finding her elbow and bringing it home. However, the actual incident of the dog finding the elbow and the police telling her parents about it occurs weeks after the murder. These occurrences in the story are moments of foreshadowing, which create expectation. Through the use of flashback and foreshadowing, Sebold veers away from a strictly chronological unfolding of events; rather, plot becomes more circular even while the narrative progressive chronologically through the 1970s.

Additional discussion on style:

Point of View
Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones, is narrated by the main character after her death. This use of first-person omniscient narration allows Sebold the option of exploring the characters in the novel from a unique perspective. With this method, the narrator is able not only to observe the behavior of the characters, but also to delve into their thoughts and emotions. This allows for a deeper development of the context in which each character evolves. When Susie witnesses her sister’s despair over her death, the narration of Lindsey’s simple act of crying in the shower with the lights out allows the reader to gain an understanding of how Lindsey is coping with the tragedy that would otherwise be impossible.

The use of omniscient narration also allows the story to unfold in a way that is not completely linear. As the main character observes her family and friends, she is reminded of past experiences and recollects those experiences in great detail. Her memories are described from a first-person point of view, while her observations of the present are provided through her omniscient narration of everything she observes. Jumping from the present to the past is achieved more easily through the use of the omniscient narration than it would be without this technique because this point of view gives the narrator an all-access pass to the life of each character and, therefore, greater power to manipulate the way the story is told.

Susie’s omniscient narration establishes two forms of suspense in the novel. The first form of suspense is based on the limited knowledge possessed by each of the secondary characters in the novel. Although Susie is knowledgeable about everything going on in the lives of the other characters, these characters do not benefit from this knowledge. Suspense is created by the observation of characters that are unaware they are being watched. Providing the reader with access to this observation is achieved uniquely through first-person omniscient narration. For example, Susie observes her father talking with her murderer and narrates the interaction as it happens, but her father is unaware that the man with whom he is interacting is his daughter's murderer.

The second form of suspense created by the omniscient narration of the main character follows from the first. Although readers have access to the narrator’s unlimited knowledge about the characters’ behavior and thoughts, the narrator does not possess the ability to predict the future. The anticipation of what will happen next is intensified by the knowledge gathered through the omniscient narration. When the main character’s father is interacting with his daughter’s murderer, the anticipation on the part of the reader is built up by the knowledge of who each of the characters is and how each relates to the others. If the reader did not know that the main character’s father was interacting with his daughter’s murderer, the interaction itself would seem uninteresting and irrelevant to the development of the story.

Media Adaptations

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  • Recorded Books published an unabridged edition of The Lovely Bones on audio CD in August 2002.
  • The movie adaptation of The Lovely Bones is being directed by Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson is producing the movie, which is scheduled for release in 2007, with his own financing. The screenplay is being co-written by Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Abbott, Charlotte, "How About Them Bones?" in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 30, July 29, 2002, pp. 22-23.

Bouton, Katherine, "What Remains," Review of The Lovely Bones, in the New York Times, July 14, 2002, Final edition, Section 7, Column 3, p. 14.

Charles, Ron, "'If I Die Before I Wake, I Pray the Lord My Soul to Take': In Alice Sebold's Debut Novel, the Dead Must Learn to Let Go, Too," Review of The Lovely Bones, in the Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2002, p. 15.

Churchwell, Sarah, "A Neato Heaven," Review of The Lovely Bones, in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 5186, August 23, 2002, p. 19.

Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, W.W. Norton, 1997, p. 9.

Grossman, Lev, "Murdered, She Wrote," Review of The Lovely Bones,in Time, Vol. 160, No. 4, July 1, 2002, p. 62.

Kakutani, Michiko, "The Power of Love Leaps the Great Divide of Death," Review of The Lovely Bones, in the New York Times, June 18, 2002, Section E, Column 4, p. 1.

Mead, Rebecca, "Immortally Cute," Review of The Lovely Bones, in the London Review of Books, Vol. 24, No. 20, October 17, 2002, p. 18.

Mendelsohn, Daniel, "Novel of the Year," Review of The Lovely Bones, in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 50, No. 1, January 16, 2003, pp. 4-5.

Russo, Maria, "Girl, Interrupted," Review of The Lovely Bones, in the Washington Post, August 11, 2002, p. BWO7.

Sebold, Alice, The Lovely Bones, Little Brown, 2004.

――――――, "The Oddity of Suburbia," in The Lovely Bones, Little Brown, 2004, pp. 2-3.

Webb, Stephen H., Earth from Above,? in Christian Century, Vol. 119, No. 21, October 9-22, 2002, p. 20.

Woloch, Nancy, Women and the American Experience, 3d ed., McGraw-Hill, pp. 508-09.

Further Reading

Baily, Beth L., and David Farber, eds., America in the Seventies, University Press of Kansas, 2004.

America in the Seventies is a collection of essays by leading scholars in the field. These essays address such issues as the cultural despair of the decade; analyze elements of seventies' culture such as film, music, and advertising; and discuss the attempt by Americans to redefine themselves in the 1970s.

Douglas, Susan, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Three Rivers Press, 1995.

This book focuses on media images of women in the last fifty years of the twentieth century. Douglas's discussions regarding the 1970s help in contextualizing the cultural atmosphere of Sebold's The Lovely Bones.

Evans, Sarah, Born for Liberty, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

This one-volume history of American women examines the changing role of women in this country. The later chapters, particularly chapters 11-12, prove helpful in understanding Abigail Salmon and Ruth Connors in Sebold's novel.

Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, Norton, 1963.

The Feminine Mystique, a foundational feminist text, examines the discontent of white, educated, suburban wives and mothers. Although published in the early 1960s, Friedan's study seems relevant to Abigail Salmon's conflicting feelings in The Lovely Bones.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying, Scribner, 1969, reprint, 1997.

This book, written in plain, understandable language, introduces and explains the five stages of grief. It remains a classic in understanding both the dying and grieving processes.

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