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Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 249 pgs
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Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien, which was our July book club selection, and is a post-apocalyptic young adult novel in which a teen is alone on the family farm when the rest of the family ventures beyond their valley in search of other survivors.  The only survivor of the bombings, but the teen has enough knowledge to know how to grow food and care for what farm animals are left.  Soon, the teen realizes that there may be others, as smoke in the distance moves closer and closer each day.  After being alone for a long period of time, how would you react to another person, a stranger that you don’t know anything about other than that he is a scientist and has some knowledge of radiation.

“I passed the house.  Visions moved behind my eyes, and I saw the house as I had seen it as a child: climbing the front steps on the way to supper; sitting on the porch at night, watching the fireflies; my grandfather rocking me on the swing; sitting there listening to someone singing, or a phonograph; later sitting on the swing at night weaving long, romantic dreams about my life to come.”  (pg. 242)

After observing the stranger for a few days, the teen decides that to meet him face-to-face is the best option, as this is the family home in the valley.  There is a sense of responsibility not only for the farm and its buildings, but for creating a home-like atmosphere even for this stranger.  Mr. Loomis, who claims to be a chemist and knows about radiation, falls ill with radiation sickness when he throws caution to the wind and jumps into the stream without testing it.  The green lushness of the valley has lulled him into a false sense of security, and this mirrors the false sense of security the teen feels when a routine develops between them.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien is character-driven from a first person point of view, and while the protagonist can be insipid at times, there are moments of evolution in her character.  Some readers, however, will be angered by the teen’s reactions to Mr. Loomis and his actions.  There are moments in which readers will want to slap the teen silly, but living a farm life in a semi-religious family, it can be easy to see how the teen would have an outlook that is hopeful and positive, expecting the best from others, rather than the worse.  Mr. Loomis and the teen are nearly foils of one another in terms of worldview, and while he is paranoid and controlling because of the loneliness he felt, the teen views the world optimistically and with wonder.  Is this due to the difference in age, their upbringing, or other factors …  it is unclear.  Background information on the characters is minimal, but the story is engaging for the most part as a teen faces a series of tough decisions.

What the book club thought: (updated 9:12 AM)

Our meeting had a consensus of they liked the book for the most part, but the protagonist drove us crazy and the scientist is someone we thought was just evil — though one member made the argument that he may have experienced more damage during his radiation sickness than we thought.  We liked the premise of a valley isolated in its own weather pattern from the fallout and we liked that the young girl had survived on her own because of her farming skills, and most of us agreed that had it been an urban kid there, they would likely have had a harder time.  There were some religion vs. science themes, but it didn’t seem to be overly done to most of us.  There were two members who absolutely disliked the main character and her decisions, her inability to swear, etc., and her naivete about the world outside the farm and the necessity of killing the antagonist.  Some also had issues with the plot and overall, most were disappointed by the ending — though we agreed that because this is an older book (1973, I think, and was finished by the author’s wife and daughter from his notes) the prose was much different than today’s cinematic-style YA post-apocalyptic novels.

About the Author:

Robert Leslie Conly (better known by his pen name, Robert C. O’Brien) was an American author and journalist for National Geographic Magazine.

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    The teen doesn’t have a name? That would annoy me!

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    Yeah, I’m kind of over the post apocalypse scenario so this might not be for me.

    • Kathy, I know the feeling, but this is an older book that apparently won some awards and has been used in the classroom. It was interesting and less cinematic than the current YA novels on this topic.