Published by Simon Pulse on October 25th 1976
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Is anyone out there?
Ann Burden is sixteen years old and completely alone. The world as she once knew it is gone, ravaged by a nuclear war that has taken everyone from her. For the past year, she has lived in a remote valley with no evidence of any other survivors.
But the smoke from a distant campfire shatters Ann's solitude. Someone else is still alive and making his way toward the valley. Who is this man? What does he want? Can he be trusted? Both excited and terrified, Ann soon realizes there may be worse things than being the last person on Earth.
Yeah. That’s how this one is going to go. The expectations were high with this one. I first discovered this book when I found out it was being made into a movie so of course I was all about getting the book read first. Especially when I realized this author also wrote one of my favorites of all time: The Secret of Nimh. Naturally I couldn’t find a copy anywhere but FINALLY! Some luck blew my way and my library came through. I started it immediately. I finished it within 24 hours. And now I’m sad.
First off, a few things you need to know. 1. This is a post-apocalyptic novel with not a whole lot of post-apocalyptic action going on. 2. If you picked this up based on the movie trailer, you’re going to be disappointed and/or confused because they have practically nothing in common. 3. There’s some animal cruelty that for once didn’t actually make me cry. Nah. I was enraged instead. And 4? There will be spoilers, but I’ll put them in tags.
We’re introduced to Anne who is sixteen years old and has been living on her childhood farm alone for the past year now. She resides within a valley that because of an inversion has escaped the havoc that the rest of the world has suffered. Her parents and two brothers went out searching for survivors after the nuclear war that happened that we never get any other details of besides the fact that it happened. They never returned. She’s cultivated a garden, has cows and chickens to keep from starving, and fortunately there is also a country store nearby that was pretty well stocked. Anne has done a pretty amazing job surviving all on her own but is understandably curious when she sees smoke in the sky indicative of a campfire. She watches it day after day as it gets closer and closer to her farm; closer and closer to whoever is lighting the fire to discovering her home. She retreats to a nearby cave with her dog Faro to monitor the individual and determine whether or not to let him know there’s one other survivor besides him.
John Loomis is a scientist from New York. His team was researching/developing radiation proof suits but there was only a single prototype in existence which is the only way he was able to survive the fallout from the bomb. Trudging through the remains of the Earth, he comes upon a strange sight: a green valley. After a year of walking, seeing nothing but Earth, the valley is a spectacular sight. He takes his helmet off and realizes he can breathe the air there as well. Unable to help himself, he dives into a small lake to bathe. Unfortunately, the stream that flows into that lake was still affected by radiation and he falls deathly ill.
Spoilers, ahoy! View Spoiler »So Anne decides she can’t hide in her cave while she watches quite possibly the last man on Earth slowly die from the contaminated water. She brings him food and water and nurses him back to health. What does she get for her good deeds? Nada. Because naturally dude turns out to be a fucking creep. For weeks, Anne maintained the farm and even expands on her plans to include him in the future. And then one night he comes into her room to undoubtedly sexual assault her. She escapes and runs back to the cave that fortunately she kept secret from him. Sure, she’s only 16, but she’s taken perfectly good care of herself up till the point he showed up. In my mind, defending yourself is the reasonable response. But nah, instead Anne tries to make peace with the crazy man and still shares half of all the food and water she gathers. That doesn’t go over so well because apparently he intends to capture her so he uses her dog Faro to hunt her down. He at one point shoots her in the leg too. He’s a real pleasant kinda guy, I totally get why she doesn’t shoot his ass. At the end he finally gets Faro to follow her scent and the dog is about to lead him right to the cave. What shall we do? 1. Shoot the creeper or 2. Shoot the dog so he can’t lead him to her only home? YES, SHE SERIOUSLY CHOSE THE SECOND OPTION. Except she doesn’t get a chance to go through with it because she missed her opportunity. So she goes with her backup plan: run through the contaminated creek so that Loomis won’t follow. But of course the freaking dog follows her. “…instead of following my trail on the rocks he had plunged into the water.” What fucking dog isn’t going to just jump in the water but instead stand on the bank looking for stepping stones. Poor Faro takes his last swim and dies of radiation poisoning.
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Z for Zachariah is actually an epistolary and is told via Anne’s journal entries. This style helped build Anne’s characterization and her day to day life before her peaceful valley was encroached upon, however, this style lacked in getting a proper feel on her emotions. She talks about her family that drove away, never to be seen from again, in a very disconnected almost robotic way. Even with passages she’s written immediately after shocking things happen, I still felt a disconnect from how it seemed like someone in her position would feel. It’s a post-apocalyptic book (much like recently read Blindness) which is more a study of human behavior rather than a focus on the reasoning behind the war that caused the devastation. This is all well and good but I felt the characters were very black/white with Anne being the good, wholesome girl and Loomis being the mysterious stranger that we never learn enough about to make his actions comprehensible. One could argue that his last year of surviving alone was enough to change him, however, Anne had to work just as hard to survive. The character study could have gone a bit deeper to better understand the inner-workings of these two characters since they were the only two characters in the book.
I wanted to love this one so much but unfortunately it didn’t happen. I kept thinking that there would be some final twist but I reached the final page without it happening. The ending left me feeling very indifferent and just as emotionally disconnected as Anne. All in all, it’s not the worst post-apocalyptic book I’ve read but it’s certainly not the best.