A long, long time ago, when I was a mere undergrad – I read a book about “The Mole People” – an anthropologist’s account of a group of people who have chosen to make a life under NYC, in the subway tunnels, etc. I becamse enamored with the concept – people leaving the “rat race” and setting up their own functioning culture and economy, just under the busy streets. What was justice like? Medicine? Who did which jobs? How were children raised? Unfortunately, it was bullshit, and the author widely discredited. But – I still loved the idea.
I have been reading a bunch of Neal Shusterman lately and was looking for more and I came across the Downsiders novel. Awesome! It’s the mole people! Fictional mole people. Like, the original mole people, without all that pretense of reality.
Review From School Library Journal (Note: Some spoilers here)
The Downsiders live in a subterranean world far beneath New York City. Taboos forbid them from going Topside, but the two worlds collide when Talon, a Downside teen, ventures up looking for medicine for his critically ill sister. There, he meets Lindsay, a Topside girl who intrigues him so much that he breaks a cardinal rule and takes her into the tunnels, showing her an amazing place filled with cast-off items-dryer lint, subway tokens, soda-can tabs-that have become useful, even beautiful. Her visit sets in motion a dangerous chain of events. Talon’s friend betrays him to the authorities and Talon is sentenced to death (by being flushed through a sewer pipe). The story takes a fascinating twist when Lindsay discovers that Downside was founded about 100 years ago by Alfred Ely Beach, a 19th-century inventor and scientist. Facts about this historical figure and about the old New York subway system are blended with the fantasy until it is difficult to tell where truth stops and fiction begins. Unfortunately, there is no afterword to explain the connections and readers might miss the fun. There is also a good deal of sophisticated social satire, as Topside is seen through naive underworld eyes. Sometimes the plot lapses too far into the absurd and there are a few weak spots. The often mock-serious tone of the narrative may be lost on some readers. Overall, though, this is an exciting and entertaining story that will please fans of adventure, science fiction, and fantasy.
And now, my favorite review form – the list of thoughts!
- I really liked the inclusion of Alfred Ely Beach. I love when some actual history and bits of real information fall into novels. It was part of what made Shusterman’s Everlost really great, and the Beach stuff really appealed to my love of Forgotten NY.
- I think its probably a spoiler – but I really love how the world was created. It just conjures images of explorers in the jungle being annointed kings, or something like that. Very Gary Larson.
- I think I am growing up. Or at least cynical. I could really care less about whatever love triangle was happening with these characters.
- The “biting commentary” on modern life is probably awesome for a teenager, but I already had my days of fighting “the man” and scoffing at sheep. Now I work in marketing. Directed at teens. My inner angsty teen gives my oh-so-mature adult self icy glares all day long.
- My “Post 9/11 Fiction Trend Theory” (remember that one?) is pretty much dead, but there is a scene in an airplane while landing at LaGuardia that references mid-air collisions. I thought I had another entry for my files, but then got chills when I realized it was written in 2001. I don’t know why that freaks me out (crashes and terrorism DID exist prior to 2001), but it did.
- I loved the goofy things about the book, that “explained” some of our regular every day mysteries. For example, “downsiders” pay for the things they borrow with single socks left in dryers. Well – it was funny the first time the author mentioned it. Then it became a little too self-aware.