The City of Ember (2003) by Jeanne DuPrau is the first science fiction novel in a series for young adult readers called The Book of Ember. The story begins in the mid twenty-first century following a devastating apocalyptic war. The setting is Ember, the sole human settlement that exists in nearly total darkness. Known as “the only light in the dark world,” Ember, too, may soon become completely pitch black. Its aging electrical system, which powers the city’s lamps and floodlights, is showing signs of failure.
The novel begins just after the completion of construction of Ember. Two of the builders realize that the supplies will not last forever and decide to leave detailed instructions for escape in a specially designed box. The box is to be passed on from mayor to mayor, but after a number of years, the box is lost. No one is especially concerned about its location, for no one knew what it contained. The builders had kept the information secret.
The story leaps forward to the year 241 and a graduation ceremony. Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, two of the graduating students, are about to accept their assignments for work in the adult world. The assignments are given randomly; each student draws a slip from a bag held by the mayor. Lina receives “Pipeworks Laborer” and Doon draws “Messenger.” The two friends switch assignments, as the each seems better suited to the other’s job.
When Doon descends into the pipeworks, he tries to find a way to save Ember. He even locates the enormous Generator, but quickly realizes he has no idea how it works, what exactly might be wrong, or how to fix it even if he did locate the problem. Meanwhile, on her jobs as messenger, Lina learns the ins and outs of the city and puzzles over the odd messages she delivers between the Mayor and a strange man named Looper.
When Lina returns to the family apartment after work, her day is not over for she must care for her aging grandmother and little sister, Poppy. One day, Poppy discovers an old piece of paper in a box. Before Lina can examine it, the toddler chews it up and tears it to pieces. Lina saves the scraps and shows them to selected people, hoping to discover its meaning, but no one has any idea how to decode the cryptic message.
Lina will not give up, though, and enlists Doon to help her solve the puzzle. Eventually, the friends discover the message is the instructions for the way to get out of Ember. They must go into the pipeworks to do so. While in the tunnels, Doon and Lina run into Looper, the weird man who had exchanged messages with the Mayor. They find out that he has been stealing the city’s precious resources. When they try to report the thefts, however, they are surprised to learn that the mayor has ordered their arrest for “spreading vicious rumours.” Lina grabs Poppy and, with Doon, the three flee the city. They embark on the underground river in a boat. On the boat, they find several strange items: “paddles,” “candles,” and “matches.”
After some time, the river winds up to a rocky slope. On the banks, Poppy discovers an old book that turns out to be a journal. Lina saves it to read later, and all three make a difficult climb over and out of the rocks. When they surface, they are amazed to discover the real, natural world, especially sun-, moon-, and starlight.
From the journal, Doon and Lina learn of the...
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history of Ember. When constructed, the founders sent one hundred adults and one hundred children there to live to ensure survival of the species. Talking about their history and exploring a nearby cave, the friends are astonished to see the City of Ember below them. Until that moment, they had not known they had been living underground.
Knowing they can never return but wanting to save others, Lina and Doon write a note with instructions for escape. They wrap the note up in Doon’s shirt and launch it over the cliff and down into Ember. Their friend Mrs. Munro discovers the package as it lands at her feet. She takes the instructions seriously and helps save the city.
Electric lights provide the only illumination in the city of Ember, but the generators are in disrepair. Two hundred years earlier, the Chief Builders wrote Instructions so the citizens would know what to do when it came time to leave the city. The Instructions were placed in a box to be held by the mayor, but the box was lost over the years.
Children in Ember are assigned jobs in the community at age twelve. Lina, who is graduating this year, wants to be a messenger, and her classmate Doon wants to be an electrician’s helper. Doon knows that the generators which provide light to the city are faltering, and he wants to fix them. Unfortunately, Lina is assigned to be a pipeworks laborer, and Doon to be a messenger. Doon asks Lina to trade with him, calculating that, as a pipeworker, he will at least have access to the generator.
Lina runs daily through the city streets delivering messages. The city is surrounded by an Unknown Region of utter darkness purported to go on forever. Lina, however, envisions a beautiful city somewhere filled with light and color. Lina lives with her Granny and baby sister Poppy. Granny, whose relative was once mayor of Ember, is getting forgetful, and one day, Lina finds her rummaging in a closet looking for an unnamed “something lost.” Lina asks a neighbor, Mrs. Murdo, to look in on Granny and Poppy when she is at work. Down in the pipeworks, Doon discovers the city is in terrible shape. Although he does not understand electricity, he has a talent for mechanics and feels that if he could just see the generator, he could find a solution to keep the city lights burning. Doon finally examines the generator, but no one can tell him how it works. They only understand that it is “the river (that) makes it go."
Ember’s citizens are increasingly afraid because of longer and more frequent blackouts. The mayor gives a garbled speech meant to be encouraging, but Doon recognizes it as lies. Lina goes home and finds Granny still searching for something in the closet. Poppy, who is with her, has found an unusual box in the mess and is chewing on the paper that was inside. Lina saves what is left and discovers a partially destroyed set of Instructions from the Builders. She sends a letter to the mayor telling about the Instructions, but when she gets no response she consults Doon, because she knows he will do something about it. Lina and Doon try to decode the Instructions together, and Doon takes Lina into the pipeworks to see a secret door he has found. Lina’s grandmother dies, and Lina and Poppy move in with Mrs. Murdo.
Lina meets her friend Lizzie and learns that though there are shortages of everything, Lizzie’s boyfriend Looper gets her special provisions. Meanwhile, Doon manages to see into the secret room in the pipeworks and discovers it is filled with supplies the mayor is keeping for himself and a few privileged others; Looper is his deliveryman. Lina and Doon report their findings to the mayor’s guards.
Continuing their efforts to decode the Instructions, Lina and Doon realize that they describe a way out of Ember. They explore the river down in the pipeworks and in a hidden room find two metal boxes labeled “Matches” and “Candles.” Experimenting with the unfamiliar materials, Doon and Lina discover that they can make a movable light, the long-sought-after piece of equipment that will allow them to explore the Unknown beyond the confines of the city. With the light, they find boats and ropes stored in the room, and conclude that the way out of Ember is down the river.
Lina and Doon plan to announce their findings on the day of the Singing, a holiday when every citizen gathers to sing about the city and its past. They predict that the entire population will then accompany them down the river on the boats, but before this can happen, guards come to arrest Doon for “spreading vicious rumors.” Doon succeeds in avoiding them and warns Lina, and the two realize they will have to go down the river by themselves. Lina is determined to take Poppy, and is arrested when she returns to get her. She manages to escape and get the baby, however, and the three children embark on a harrowing trip by boat down the dark underground river.
The river finally ends in a shallow pool. The children find themselves in a cavern, and disembark. Using candles, they discover a path and eventually come to a sign welcoming “Refugees from Ember,” directing them to continue climbing for several hours. At the end of the path Lina, Doon, and Poppy enter into a natural world of fields and endless sky.
Poppy has found a packet along the way, and Lina and Doon examine it and find it is a book relating the story of the founding of Ember, which had been built to ensure that people would not disappear from the earth after an unnamed catastrophe. Two hundred years ago, a hundred older men and women and a hundred babies had been spirited underground to the city, where they would live in a place designed to last until the danger above was over. These people would keep civilization going and, at the proper time, return to the natural world by following the instructions left in the secret box.
Lina and Doon realize that no one left in Ember knows how to get out of the doomed city. While exploring their new surroundings, they discover that, from the top of a tall cliff, they can look right down upon their old home. Writing a letter of explanation with detailed instructions on how to find the room full of boats and get out of Ember before it is too late, Lina and Doon wrap the message around a rock and hurl it down into the city. The story ends on a hopeful note when the message lands in Ember on the pavement in front of Mrs. Murdo, who picks it up and begins to examine it.