Unwind Summary

Connor and Risa live in a dystopian future. Their world has been forever changed by the Heartland War, which was fought between pro-life and pro-choice supporters.

  • After the war, the Bill of Life is passed. It bans abortion and legalizes "unwinding," an advanced procedure that involves harvesting all a person's organs and implanting them in new hosts, thus allowing the donor to live on through their body parts.
  • Parents and legal guardians can elect to have their children unwound between the ages of 13 and 18. When Connor and Risa are chosen to be unwound, they run away to a salvage site known as the graveyard, where they live inside old cargo planes with other runaways.

  • Connor and Risa are betrayed by Roland, a power-hungry boy. All three are arrested and taken to Happy Jack Harvest Camp, where they're prepped for unwinding. Their new friend, Lev, arranges a strike on the camp that saves Connor and Risa, but not Roland.


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.

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...

(The entire section is 2282 words.)