Unwind Summary

Unwind imagines a future in which parents can elect to have their children "unwound," or disassembled so that their body parts can be transplanted. Unwinding replaced the now outlawed practice of abortion and is viewed as more humane since donors can allegedly live on through their parts.

  • When teenagers Connor and Risa are chosen to be unwound, they flee and join a group of other runaways.

  • Connor and Risa are betrayed by Roland, a power-hungry boy. All three are arrested and prepped for unwinding.

  • Their new friend, Lev, arranges a strike on the camp, which saves Connor and Risa, but not Roland.


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Last Updated February 27, 2024.

In the dystopian future that Neal Shusterman has created in Unwind, “unwinding” a child is not considered murder. Unwanted teenagers (until age 18) can be disassembled and their organs transplanted to people who need them. It is emphasized that 100% of the child will live on, though merely in a divided state. As one child in the novel points out, “unwinds” are statistically more likely to go on to greatness. Unfortunately, it turns out that unwinding children is more controversial and complicated than was originally foreseen.

Plot Summary:

"Unwind" unfolds in a world reshaped by the Heartland War, a conflict between pro-choice and pro-life factions that culminated in the passage of the Bill of Life. This legislation, intended to end the war, established that life is inviolable from conception until age thirteen, after which parents can choose to "retroactively abort" their child through unwinding. While hailed as a compromise between opposing ideologies, the reality of unwinding proves to be far more contentious and morally fraught than anticipated.

The novel follows the stories of Connor, Risa, and Lev, three teenagers facing unwinding for different reasons. Connor, deemed a troublemaker by his parents, flees from his impending unwinding, while Risa, a ward of the state, faces unwinding due to bureaucratic expediency. Lev, raised as a tithe by devout parents, grapples with conflicting beliefs about his destiny as a sacrificial offering.

As the three protagonists navigate a perilous journey to evade capture and escape unwinding, they encounter a network of allies and adversaries, each with their own motivations and agendas. Along the way, they confront the harsh realities of a society where human life has been commodified and devalued, where storking (abandoning babies) and unwinding are grim alternatives to traditional concepts of birth and death.

Their odyssey leads them to the Graveyard, a sanctuary for runaway unwinds, where they find temporary refuge and forge unexpected bonds amidst the looming threat of discovery. However, their newfound sanctuary is soon jeopardized by internal power struggles and external pressures, culminating in a harrowing confrontation that tests their courage and convictions.

Neal Shusterman's "Unwind" is a provocative and thought-provoking exploration of ethical dilemmas and moral ambiguity in a dystopian society. Through its compelling narrative and complex characters, the novel invites readers to confront uncomfortable truths about the nature of humanity and the consequences of unchecked power. As Connor, Risa, and Lev navigate a world fraught with danger and uncertainty, they embody resilience, compassion, and the enduring quest for freedom and justice. In its exploration of profound themes and timeless questions, "Unwind" resonates as a powerful meditation on the value of life, the importance of empathy, and the enduring struggle for individual rights in the face of oppression.

Unwinding children began after Heartland War. Fought between pro-choice and pro-life supporters, America’s second civil war resulted in the Bill of Life, which ends the war. Among these laws is a legal determination that life is inviolable from conception until age thirteen, at which point families can choose to “retroactively abort” their child. It is reported that this agreement satisfies both the pro-life and pro-choice stances. Although laws like the Bill of Life were passed to make the world a better place, some people argue that laws are powerless to change human nature.

Still others find that although the Bill of Life was meant to protect the sanctity of life, it has unfortunately “cheapened it.” Abortion is illegal. In its place has arisen “storking.” Storking occurs when a teenage mother does not want her child, so she places it on the doorstep of an unsuspecting family. That family is bound by law to care for the child, which in the least means sending it to a State Care Home. Storked babies are usually associated with hope and purity, but many families find them a chore.

Many families do care for their storked children, but they may choose to have these children unwound later, particularly if those children are deviants or if they become an unnecessary expense. However, not all unwinds are miscreants. Some parents choose to “tithe” their children. Just as some Christian churches ask their congregation to give 10% of their income to the church, so too do some families choose to “give back” to their community with 10% of their children. Tithes are considered by many to be a higher class than ordinary children, in contrast to unwinds, which are a lower class.

Although every part of the unwound child lives on after transplantation, some people consider unwinding an abomination. Consequently, an anonymous network has developed to help runaway unwinds escape their parents and the police. This network ultimately ends in the Graveyard. The Graveyard is where old planes are sent after they are decommissioned, and like unwinds, the parts of these planes are used to replace the missing parts of other planes. What no one realizes is that the cargo holds of these planes have been filled with AWOL unwinds. Run by retired Admiral Dunfee, the Graveyard serves as a home to runaway unwinds until they turn 18, at which point it is illegal to unwind them.

Of course, not all unwinds escape, and those who do not escape are sent to Harvest Camps. Harvest Camps were originally known as Unwind Centers. However, experience has led to a reform of these centers: they are now built in spacious, beautiful locations; they are well tended; and the surgeons who unwind children wear happy yellow scrubs. There is even a band that plays on the roof of one.

The unwinds at these centers can be divided at any time before they turn 18. However, they are usually kept alive and assigned a series of tasks, especially sports. The unwinds are monitored constantly, so that their body parts can be assessed for financial value. In this world, the rich are able to afford enhancements and cosmetic transplants, but the poor make do with asthmatic lungs. Regardless of quality, these blood plants and transfusions save and enhance lives.

“Clappers” are not interested in saving lives. This latest form of terrorism involves injecting unstable chemicals into a person’s bloodstream. These people quite literally become human bombs, and clapping their hands is sufficient to detonate their explosive bodies. The clappers are not tied to a political movement but they tend to have lived traumatic lives and view clapping as a way to express the pain they feel.

Unlike clappers and tithes, Connor and Risa are fighting to continue their life in an undivided state. However, their guardians have signed paperwork in triplicate to have them unwound. Connor has always been a troublemaker and his parents are fed up. Risa is a diligent ward of the state; unfortunately, she has reached her potential and is now being cleared out to make room for newly arriving children. Connor chooses to flee from his parents before they can send him to Harvest Camp, but the police catch up to him on the freeway. Always impulsive, Connor manages to use the chaos of the freeway to his advantage and escapes into the woods. Before leaving, Connor “rescues” a human tithe, Lev, and joins forces with Risa. The three of them escape together.

Unhappy at being rescued from his holy destiny as a human tithe, Lev betrays Risa and Connor to the police at the first opportunity. Relying on the help of strangers, their wits, and luck, Connor and Risa discover the network trying to save unwinds. Along the way, they cross paths with Roland, another escaped unwind who is manipulative, violent, and hungry for power. Although Risa and Connor make enemies with Roland, they reach the Graveyard together. For the first time, Connor and Risa begin to find a place where they fit in. Connor discovers a knack for fixing things and Risa becomes a talented medic. Roland studies to become a helicopter pilot.

Run as a dictatorship by a retired admiral, the Graveyard has managed to save thousands of unwinds from being divided. However, things are not as stable in the Graveyard as they initially appear. A cunning and manipulative leader, Roland begins to spread rumors that the Admiral is abusing his power, taking body parts from the unwinds. When children start to go missing, the unwinds riot and the Admiral has a heart attack. Loyal to the Admiral, Risa and Connor coerce Roland into flying the Admiral to a nearby hospital; Roland betrays them to the police only to be betrayed in turn by the authorities. All three of them end up in Happy Jack Harvest Camp.

There they are joined by Lev, who having lost his faith has now become a clapper along with two others. Because he has a rare blood type, Roland is unwound much sooner than normal. Because others look up to him, Connor is scheduled to be unwound on the same day. However, when Lev discovers that Connor is about to be divided, he convinces his clapper cell to blow up the Harvest Center clinic. Connor’s arm is destroyed in the process, but he receives a new arm—one that belonged to his sworn enemy, Roland. Risa is paralyzed from the waist down. Surprisingly, Lev does not clap, survives, and even goes on to mount a rescue effort.

At the end of the novel, Lev has become a poster child for those who question the ethics of unwinding. Because of Lev’s fame, the age of maturity is reduced to seventeen, which will save one fifth of all unwinds. Until unwinding is finally outlawed completely, Connor and Risa have taken over the Graveyard.


Pro-Life and Pro-Choice

By choosing to write about an America that exists after a second civil war has been fought between pro-life and pro-choice movements, Shusterman at first seems to be tackling this question head on. In contemporary America, the pro-life movement argues that life begins at conception and that abortion should be illegal. The pro-choice movement feels that by outlawing abortion the state controls what women can do with their bodies. They believe women should have the right to choose what they do with their bodies. However, Shusterman does not take a definitive stance on the controversy and two of the final lines of the novel are declared by Connor: “We have a right to our lives....We have a right to choose what happens to our bodies....We deserve to live in a world where both those things are possible.” Readers looking for a definitive answer on the pro-choice/pro-life debate are left wondering what to do with this ambiguous ending.

For many of the characters in the novel, it is important to consider whether biological living is a sufficient definition of what life means. If so, then unwinding is not murder because the body will continue to live on in its divided state. However, most unwinds oppose the idea of being unwound because their consciousness will not survive. Is consciousness the definitive element that makes up life? If so, then removing consciousness from a biologically alive being by unwinding it could be classified as murder. However at what point does this consciousness begin?

Christians in the novel are less concerned with consciousness than they are with the soul. Is the soul created at conception? Is it brought into being at birth? One unwind posits that people do not have souls until they are loved. Still another theory is that because God is capable of seeing the future, children that are going to be unwound are not given souls.

These questions are complex, and some characters argue that everyone should grapple with them, though they should be prepared to tolerate dissenting opinions. Hayden, the most philosophical thinker among the unwinds at the Graveyard, ultimately admits that he is unable to answer these questions of consciousness and the soul, to which Connor responds that if everyone admitted this there might not have been a war. Connor realizes that no one is able to definitely answer these questions, which suggests that Shusterman is encouraging tolerance and communication between the pro-life and pro-choice movements. Although pro-life and pro-choice seem to be irrevocably at odds with each other, Shusterman calls for reconciliation.

This view is reinforced at the end of the novel. When Conner loses his arm in the clapper bombing at Happy Jack Harvest Camp, it is replaced with an unwound arm without his consent. He quickly realizes that this arm once belonged to his enemy, Roland, and initially tells Risa that he will never touch her with Roland’s hand. However, together they decide that, regardless of the arm's original owner, it is now a part of Connor. In other words, two opposing forces are reconciled in one identity.

Forgiveness and Compassion

Many of the characters in Unwind seek second chances, redemption, and forgiveness. Throughout the novel, people make mistakes. As one of the original backers of unwinding, Admiral Dunfee received a great deal of pressure to have his delinquent son unwound. The admiral gave in only to realize that he had made an irreversible mistake. To atone for this mistake, the Admiral runs the Graveyard to free other unwinds. Although some mistakes cannot be changed, Shusterman suggests that the people who make mistakes can change. In other words, redemption is possible.

An impulsive teenager, Connor frequently makes mistakes. By choosing to have him unwound, Connor’s parents have refused to forgive him for his failure to think before he acts. Yet by the end of the novel, this is precisely what Connor learns to do. What’s more, when Connor is given the chance to write to his parents from the safety of the unwind network, he is overwhelmed by his emotions. Connor feels anger and sadness at what his parents have done, but ultimately realizes that he still loves them.

Even Roland, who is consistently characterized as selfish and dangerous, eventually becomes a sympathetic character. When he defeats Connor in a fight, he refrains from killing his opponent. Risa is certain that Roland is determined to kill Connor to gain power, but she is mistaken. In spite of Roland’s manipulations and betrayals, it is difficult not to feel sorry for him when he is slowly unwound. Indeed, his unwinding is a horrific and ultimately cold and calculated process—one bereft of compassion and sympathy. It is difficult not to feel sorry for him.

Society Versus the Individual

Shusterman’s focus on redemption, forgiveness, and human fallibility invites readers to shift the focus away from society to individuals. Nurse Greta argues that “you can’t change laws without first changing human nature,” to which Nurse Yvonne counters, “You can’t change human nature without first changing the law.” However, both nurses seem to be losing their argument. When viewed as a whole, humanity is out of control. Furthermore, when viewing humanity as a whole, the compassion for individuals is lost—so is tolerance.

The Fatigues risk their freedom to help unwinds, yet they do not actually care about the children they are trying to save. They are only able to see the whole picture, which comes as the cost of seeing the unwinds as individuals. For the Fatigues, the unwinds need to be put aboard decommissioned planes, at which point they become someone else’s problem. It is easy for them to rationalize beating unwinds with guns to help them reach safety. Indeed, nearly every person that betrays the unwinds goes through this process of rationalization. Though the Fatigues are hardly villains, their behavior is at odds with Sonia, who sees the unwinds as individuals.

Ultimately, for individuals to change and to redeem themselves, they require choices. For choices to be made, there must be tolerance. There will also be mistakes. Because of this, Risa determines that the draconian Bill of Life ultimately cheapens it. There are still unwanted children and there is still suffering. There are still individuals in need of compassion.

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