The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
“I see the flame before I strike the match,” says the victim of a mysterious sleeping sickness seizing the small college town of Santa Lora, California. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker explores existential questions that lie in this space between being awake and asleep as characters struggle to survive and solve this medical mystery. Is this dreaming the reality of another dimension running parallel to the lives of the sleeping?
This sleeping sickness starts in the college dorm and quickly consumes the drought-stricken community. It’s October and Santa Lora is suffering one of the longest droughts in its history but the weather is beautiful and the community is in denial as the author writes: “It does not seem possible in weather so pleasant for an eighteen-year-old girl to die.” That girl is the first victim of the sleeping sickness that spreads from the college campus into the community consuming entire families.
The sleepers are dreaming: some of the past, some of the future, some of the present. What do these dreams mean? Do they reveal some deeply hidden truth about their souls and psyches? Or are they just random bits of memories colliding together discombobulated?
Dr. Catherine Cohen, a specialist in psychiatric disorders, arrives in town from Los Angeles to study these sleepers whose sleeping brains are extraordinarily busy. She notes: “There is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain—awake or asleep.”
The sleepers are kept alive by feeding tubes and some begin to sleepwalk. It starts with a sleeping boy who jumps from the hospital window and kills himself. Two students on that infected dorm floor, Mei and Matthew, seem to be immune to the sleeping sickness. They become community heroes searching for and rescuing sleepers and delivering them to the hospital until one falls ill. The other must choose between saving the life of a friend or sacrificing one life to save several.
The sleeping sickness will forever be known as the Santa Lora Virus, an unsolved medical mystery that challenges notions of the past, present and future, the reality of two lives lived— one with eyes wide open and the closed in slumber. Who is to say that what we dream is as much alive as what we live awake.
I highly recommend this provocative work of fiction that probes human perseverance in a world of unknowns where “Every ordinary moment holds a potential calamity and you cannot know when one will rise.”
The Dreamers is the perfect book club read to spark lively conversation and thought-provoking questions.
As the president of the Book Babes Book Club, I found the reader’s guide quite helpful. Here’s a link to it: Dreamers_ReadingExpGuide
Walker is also the author of the New York Times novel The Age of Miracles