Why was I so reluctant to read it? Well, it should have been a no brainer. I am a Christian, and I love fiction, and this book is Christian fiction. But I have made no secret of my disappointment with this this genre. So I generally stick to mainstream literature and fiction and just read the Christian volumes that inadvertently fall into my lap. Usually via my mom. Karen Kingsbury is the Grand Duchess of Christian fiction though, supplanted only by Her Majesty the Queen Francine Rivers. The main difference between the two of them (in my opinion) is that Rivers is more of a heavy hitter. While Kingsbury yanks at your heart, Rivers does a number on your brain as well. Kingsbury is a wonderful and powerful writer but she sometimes gives emotion precedence over fact or reality.
Another reason I was reluctant is that Unlocked is about Autism. As a parent of small children I am well aware of the heartbreaking impact the condition is having, particularly on this generation. And I am ashamed to admit that I am among those that just plain gets bored of hearing about the same old thing all the time. But all one hears is "autism autism autism," and yes, I get tired of it. There's a difference between Awareness and Overload, and I am suffering from Autism Awareness Overload. I hope you understand and aren't now writing me off as an absolute jerk.
So I finally picked the book up, dusted it off, and cracked it open. And then, as you may have predicted, I couldn't put it down again. Unlocked is the story of Holden, a boy who had developed normally until the age of three, when after an unusually large volume of vaccinations was administered he began to regress to the point of profound Autism.
(I'd like to point out here that Kingsbury makes no claims in the great vaccination / Autism debate. She treats the issue very tactfully, noting simply that the family always wondered if there might be a connection but without demanding clinical trials or marching on Washington. This is a volatile issue, with nothing yet proven either way, but with some very strong opinions on both sides, and any writer would be hard pressed to treat it more tactfully or objectively than Kingsbury did here.)
When Holden's family and friends realized he had been essentially lost to them, it caused huge rifts. His father moved to Alaska (there are some parallels to Jonah as he fights storms and rogue waves on shrimping boats), and his parents' life long best friends friends moved to New York. He was left alone with his mother and a series of therapists and special education teachers, sometimes helpful and sometimes not, who struggled to reach the old Holden locked somewhere inside the shell of a boy that physically remained.
When Holden begins a new school year at Fulton High, he meets Ella Reynolds, the daughter of his parents' long lost best friends, who had recently moved back. Ella senses a connection with him but isn't sure why, and she becomes Holden's friend and advocate in the school. Soon she has teachers convinced to allow him to sit on on rehearsals for the Spring musical, and that's where his miracle begins. As the school year continues and the families and teachers and students witness Holden's transformation from apparent Beast to Prince, they also become aware of their own beastly exteriors that are imprisoning the beauty inside.
Yes, the book is ostensibly about Autism and the stereotypes thereof, but Kingsbury uses the condition to demonstrate that all of us lock our true selves up, so that on the outside we can be the jaded cynics the world wants us to be. An Autistic person can't control his or her condition, but the rest of us have a choice.
Another interesting feature of this book is that when writing it, Kingsbury participated in Forever in Fiction, something I've seen in a few other books from time to time, including one by Marian Keyes. When a writer participates in this program fans place bids, and the highest bidders are made into characters in the book. The money is donated to a charity. In this case the winning character is named after a little girl battling brain cancer, and the money raised went to her treatments.
I'd like to give this book five stars because it is really a great book that teaches a great truth and had me reaching for the Kleenex more than once. But there were too many stylistic and factual flaws for me to stretch it to that last star.