Can you imagine going to sleep, beginning to dream and then never waking up from the dream? That is what happens to a small college campus in the hills of Southern California, in Karen Thompson Walker sci-fi novel, The Dreamers.
It all starts when a freshman girl falls asleep in her dorm and then doesn’t wake up the next morning to go to class. When her roommate Mei tries to rouse her, she won’t wake up. She is sent off to the hospital and after running tests, they discover the student is not only sleeping but dreaming. Then another student falls asleep and then another. But there is no pattern to the timing or the person that is affected. They think it is only affecting the students at the college, but then people in town begin to fall asleep. Things begin to spiral out of control as the National Guard steps in to quarantine the town and doctors try to figure out what is causing the illness.
Overall I thought the book was good. The source of the illness keeps alluding the doctors and they know nothing about it or how it spreads. As more and more people in this small town fall asleep you begin to wonder, what happens if everyone in this town goes under? What happens then? And the fact that the town has only one road to get in and out just tells you how isolated it is? If everyone goes under, how will people know anyone is there? Who will take care of them?
Walker breaks up the book into multiple character perspectives from two of the students at the college who were never infected, to the couple who are new parents to a three-week-old, an old man that lives alone and a doctor who is trying to get down to the bottom of the illness. But each character brings their own source of tension to the crisis as they learn to deal with what is going on around them and wait to see if the illness will affect them. I was definitely holding my breath every time I read the parts with the parents of the newborn. Please oh please don’t let the baby get it, I kept thinking.
While I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking about the movie “Outbreak” where a small town is shut down by the National Guard after fatal illness begins to spread. This book had the same feel, as the more and people get sick to the point that the hospital is undated and there is a growing underlying panic that is beginning to spread as no one can figure out how to stop it.
I will say that although I thought the book was good, I found the ending a bit disappointing. I couldn’t help thinking, “that’s it? That is the only explanation we are going to get?” It seemed unrealistic that the outcome was that simple. But maybe that is the thing. Sometimes an illness tricks us to believe that it is way worse than it is. I guess I just wanted to be scared into thinking like what if this illness really happened? What we would we do? And I didn’t get that.
Despite that, I enjoyed the book overall. Walker gave an interesting character study into what people do in times of crisis. What lengths will people go to save to themselves and those they love? How do people come together to help? What do you do when there is nothing you can do? It definitely made you sit down and think about a lot of what ifs.