My favourite book of all time was written the year before I was even born. My copy of Sunburst is yellow with age and bears the astonishing price of 40 cents on the cover. Some of the pages are starting to rip, so I read it each time with the utmost reverence and the shiver of apprehension that someday the book will fall completely apart.
Perhaps the lines from the first page drew me in… “She was still a very tall cranelike girl, rather sallow, with narrow torso in a navy sweatshirt and long bluejean legs like articulated stovepipes.” It is Shandy Johnson’s thirteenth birthday at the beginning of the book. I was the same age when I first opened the pages of Sunburst and 6’2” in my bare feet. I fell head over heels into this adventure about a community outside Chicago that had been closed off from the rest of the world after a nuclear accident at their plant. Years later, just as the danger seemed to be fading came the terrible and violent night that revealed the radiation had caused a deeper mutation in children of the plant workers. Some of them had developed psi powers that allowed them to read minds, teleport, twist metal and more. Their rage sweept through Sorrel Park, forming them into a pack of frustrated, delinquent teens who were stopped and ultimately placed in the only prison that will hold them… a place that became known as The Dump.
Sunburst opens 8 years later on the day of Shandy’s birthday when Jason Hemmer, the Dumper’s Peeper who patrols Sorrel Park looking for people with rogue psi powers, whistles at her because she has something even rarer… she is an Imper… impervious to having her mind read or even sometimes being noticed. Shandy is brought in for observation unwillingly yet soon becomes embroiled in the lives of those trying to protect Sorrel Park. She is swept along as she tries to figure out who she is becoming and how her own unique abilities will be able to help those she is beginning to care about.
Phyllis Gotlieb, Canadian science-fiction novelist and poet, passed away in 2009 at the age of 83. Sunburst was her second novel and her Sunburst Award continues to recognize and honour one speculative fiction novel or book-length collection every year.
Sunburst is short by today’s book standards and yet it contains all of the key ingredients for a true classic: strong characters, a unique setting, captivating plot twists and a rich, satisfying ending that allows a reader to wander off imagining other possibilities. Every time I read this book, I am ensnared by the tale. I remember the sensation of feeling different , like you don’t quite belong, that Shandy wrestles with and which Phyllis Gotlieb does such a wonderful job of expressing. That alone makes this story timeless and powerful for any teenager.
Paperback format, 160 pages, published in 1964 by Fawcett Publications