This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first in the “Shadow Children” series.
Luke is the third child in his family, the youngest of three brothers, which makes him illegal. Only two children are allowed in each family — additional children are usually prevented from being born or are killed. Luke’s family lives on a farm, where isolation and a ready food supply have helped hide Luke. When his family is forced to sell part of their property to the government, a new neighborhood springs up behind their house.
This starts a chain reaction that puts increasing pressure on Luke and his family. Luke can no longer go outside — it’s not safe with so many new neighbors. The government decides that Luke’s family can no longer raise pigs in addition to their crops, because the smell will offend their wealthy new neighbors. Large, new houses in the area mean their own family’s farmland increases in value, which sounds good, but also means an increase in their property tax. With less income and access to food, along with higher bills, Luke’s mom must take a factory job to help make ends meet. Then she tries to squeeze a day’s worth of chores into the evenings, after working 12-hour shifts.
Meanwhile, Luke is increasingly limited in his activities. First he is unable to go outside, then even into a room with windows (because suspicions are raised by closed window shades). This means he can’t join his family at the table for meals, and it becomes difficult for him to carry on a conversation with them from the attic steps. Slowly the isolation the family has been playacting begins to affect the reality of their relationships as well.
Being largely confined to the attic, and alone much of the day, Luke gets cabin fever. Longing for contact with the outside world, he regularly watches the new neighborhood through vents in the attic walls. Doing so, he makes the surprising discovery that one of their neighbors appears to have a third, hidden child as well. One day, after weeks of careful observation and planning, he sneaks over to their house, expecting to slip inside the side door. When he finds the sliding screen locked, he panics. Instead of running back to his own house, he pushes his fist through the screen, unlatches the door and lets himself in.
Inside he finds the neighbors’ third child is a girl named Jen, one year older than he is. She is sophisticated and technologically savvy, where Luke is socially isolated and simple. Luke’s family is poor, but hers is shockingly rich. Luke and his family are completely cowed by fear of the government, but Jen is brazen in her disdain for them. Jen introduces him to the wider world, filling him in on not only what is happening in society, but why (response to a food crisis) and how to beat the system (mainly bribes). Jen and Luke devise a system where he can visit with her regularly. Their visits bring a new dimension to his life, but one that he can’t share with his family.
Jen is counting on the power of a protest to help change the government’s policy. She plans a rally outside the president’s home, hoping that she, and at least 800 other Shadow children she knows, will shame the government into granting them freedom. Jen assumes Luke will join her at the rally and makes plans accordingly. However, Luke can’t bring himself to join her. She tries to convince him otherwise, but once she realizes that he won’t join her, she orders him out of her house.
Luke wrestles with his emotions — alternating between anger at Jen and the fear that her allegations of cowardice are true. Ultimately though, he just misses her and the camaraderie they shared. One night he awakens with a start to find her in his room. She apologizes for the way she treated him, thanks him for being a good friend and says goodbye before leaving for the rally.
Luke waits for news in the days to follow, but hears nothing — either on the radio or from Jen in person. Finally, hoping to learn something, he breaks into her house, disarming the security code as she taught him. She is not there, so Luke signs on to the secret chat room, but it, too, is empty. Suddenly, however, Jen’s stepfather enters the room with a gun, demanding to know who he is and what he is doing in their house.
Luke explains who he is and how he knew Jen, but her stepfather has devastating news. Jen is dead — the government shot all 40 of the protestors — and hid all evidence of them and the rally. Worse, they were now closely monitoring the chat room, and Luke’s search there has triggered an alarm that will surely lead them to Jen’s house. From that, they will deduce that another Shadow child lives close by and will search the neighborhood until they find Luke.
Jen’s stepfather offers him a fake ID card, which will allow him to start a new life away from his family. This is good news in one sense — staying hidden for the rest of his life seems as maddening as it is impossible. But cutting ties with his family is a high price to pay. Luke wonders how Jen’s stepfather can safely offer this to him. He learns that her stepfather is not only a high-ranking government official but also works for the dreaded Population Police, who are hunting the Shadow children. Luke becomes uncertain about who he can trust, and he even picks up a gun to defend himself against Jen’s stepfather.
Jen’s stepfather is able to talk Luke out of using the gun, but Luke is still trying to process everything when the Population Police pound on the door — arriving much sooner than Jen’s stepfather expected. He hides Luke in the closet and buys some them some time with a combination of bluff and bribe. It won’t last long though, and Luke must decide what to do.
Ultimately, he decides to accept the offer of a fake ID. He doesn’t want to live his life on the run, but he does want to live his life on the outside and help other Shadow children. His hope is that by doing this, he and they will be able to change their society through ingenuity and intellectual contributions — thinking up alternate solutions to the food shortages, etc.
Although this plan does involve leaving his parents, it also means no more secrets for them, which is a relief. He says a painful, but somewhat hopeful goodbye to his family and leaves.
Sons in Luke’s family are named after the apostles: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Luke’s mother thanks the Lord for him, and confides that she always hopes there might be room in their family for a John as well.
Jen’s stepfather is not a Christian. When trying to convince Luke that he is on Luke’s side, he swears in Jen’s name, which is his own example of everything that is sacred.
The government believes society runs best with a strong central authority directing every aspect of public and private life. They decide where people live (putting farmers on the best farmland) and what people do (such as only growing crops — not raising animals plus crops, or growing those crops indoors).
Many individual characters in the story believe society runs best when people are given the freedom to use their own ingenuity and can then reap the benefits of this creativity directly (versus having benefits assigned by the government). They believe people are always worth the investment, whereas the government portrayed here is not so sure.
Jen values freedom and action above almost everything else. She does not really understand prudence — either her stepfather’s in working within the system or Luke’s in fearing the government’s power. She sees anything less than direct confrontation with the government as cowardice. Her stepfather values working within the system to effect change.
Luke’s father is strict, gruff and distant, but he clearly wants what is best for Luke. Luke’s mother is tender and kind. She is more likely to explain things to Luke and to sympathize with him. She is equally strict with the rules but seems to understand Luke’s pain in living under them. The government is a strong, unpleasant and demanding presence in all their lives. Yet, many government employees do not follow (or even sympathize with) the rules they are paid to enforce.
Luke has great respect for his parents and the government, although he does occasionally defy them. He also keeps secrets from his parents but feels bad for doing so. His goodbye to them is less painful because they are finally able to live their lives fully within society. Luke’s obedience is mostly from a genuine respect and love. He recognizes that their rules are there to protect him. His obedience toward the government is mostly out of fear for the consequences that might otherwise come to him and his family.
Jen has a completely opposite attitude toward authority, both her stepfather and the government. She sees no threat from the government because she thinks it is hopelessly incompetent (and judging from the risks she has taken these many years without consequence, she may be right). Jen is almost as disdainful of her own parents as she is of the government. She orders her stepfather around on the phone and seems to use his love for her as leverage to get what she wants. She thinks her mom mainly values her for companionship on shopping trips. Other Shadow children in their chat room have similar aggressive attitudes. They feel abandoned by their parents, certainly distant from them, and are aware that their parents have little leverage to discipline them. What privileges could possibly be taken away? Although Jen often relates to Luke mockingly, he still finds her fascinating.
Jeez is said once. Jen scrapes herself on an opened screen — drawing her own blood to cover for Luke’s. All the Shadow children who attend the rally are killed, and their blood runs toward the president’s roses.
Jen tells Luke that she was part of some early gender selection experiments, so her parents knew they would be getting a girl when she was born. She also complains a bit to Luke about her mother taking her bra shopping, then stops when she realizes that bras are probably not common conversation topic in a household of three boys. Luke tells her that his brothers do sometimes talk about bras, but only when they are being dirty.
Jen’s stepfather asks Luke what else he and Jen did together. The implication is that they had a sexual relationship. Luke understands the question to be accusatory, but doesn’t quite understand why. Jen sneaks into Luke’s bedroom in the middle of the night to say goodbye before the rally (and to apologize for being harsh and thank him for being such a good friend). They do not even hug each other goodbye.
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