“They sleep like children, mouths open, cheeks flushed. Breathing as rhythmic as swells on a sea. No longer allowed in the rooms, their mothers and fathers watch them through double-paned glass. Isolation – that’s what the doctors call it: the separation of the sick from the well. But isn’t every sleep a kind of isolation? When else are we so alone?”
Life in the small town of Santa Lora, California is pretty quiet. The most pressing concern comes from the ever-present threat of wildfires. But then, a freshman at the local college comes home from a party, falls asleep in her dorm room, and doesn’t wake up. Before you know it, another student is afflicted. Then another. Then another. Time ticks away as the town tries to stem the spread of a disease they know nothing about, all while trying to understand where it came from. Welcome to “The Dreamers” by Karen Thompson Walker.
“The Dreamers” follows three sets of townsfolk who are trying to deal with the sleeping sickness. Mei was at ground zero as it was her roommate who first came down with the disease. Authorities are slow to recognize this is contagious, so it takes a while before they quarantine the dorm. Mei is a shy girl with no friends but connects with the odd and eccentric Matthew. Eventually the college students rebel and break out. You can only imagine the consequences of that action on the greater population. What it also does is bring Mei and Matthew together as they join the townspeople in trying to save their neighbors.
Sisters Sara and Libby, eleven and twelve years old, live with their survivalist/conspiracy theorist father. Their father works at the college and comes home furious that authorities did not warn anyone of the disease. But he’s prepared for it with a cellar stocked with every supply known to man. Sadly for Sara and Libby, their father succumbs and after authorities take him to the hospital and paint a black “X” on their house, they are left to fend for themselves.
Next door to Sara and Libby are two young college professors newly arrived to Santa Lora and also new parents. Ben and Annie are salvaging their marriage and it seems they have put all their eggs in their baby Grace’s basket. Their attention to Grace is borderline obsessive and that’s before the sleeping sickness arrives. When it does, two of the three succumb, leaving the third a mess.
Doctors and psychologists struggle to understand what is happening. The oddest part of the sickness is that the brains of those afflicted register abnormally high activity, as if they are dreaming at a hyper alert level. Soon the hospital runs out of rooms and other buildings are set up as makeshift infirmaries. Then it becomes a race against time as sleepers start to die.
I found the most intriguing parts of the story to be centered around the sleepers who wake. In the case of Sara and Libby, their father “sees” a disaster that has yet to happen. Did he really dream the future? Another woman went to sleep not realizing she is pregnant, so she wakes to a daughter born while she slept. But she keeps looking for the son she dreamed about and wonders which life is real and which is the dream. I would have been happy to have most of the book deal with the “wakers” than the rush to save the sleepers.
There are tragedies, both inadvertent and deliberate. The action isn’t exactly fast-paced as Thompson Walker uses the “tell” and not “show” approach; we learn what is happening more through her exposition than through character action. Even so, “The Dreamers” never gets bogged down, which made for a likeable and interesting read. Was I afraid to go asleep after reading it? No, but I did pay more attention to my dreams and I’m happy to report they remain as much as an enigma as ever.