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Z for Zachariah

Z for Zachariah - Robert C. O'Brien This is the first time I've ever utilized that "hide review because you're a big fat blabbermouth who can't talk about a book without ruining it for others" function. But the fact is, it's important for a reader of "Z For Zachariah" to be surprised by the nature of the stranger who shows up. And it's almost impossible to talk about the book in any detail without giving that away.

One thing that ought to be better known about the book is that, although it's credited to Robert C. O'Brien, he died before completing it. His wife and daughter finished it, working from notes he left. I haven't been able to find out how much he'd written before he died and how much work they had to do, but I think it's pretty rude not to credit them on the cover rather than hiding their labors in the "about the author" note.

Okay, time for some spoilers.

This is a very strange book. Not because it's about a teenager who thinks she's the last person on earth, but because there's surprisingly little action. Which is fine, in and of itself. I love character-driven works, and as I mentioned in my review of "I Am Legend," I have a soft spot for books about the everyday nuts and bolts of surviving in a strange world. I'd be happy to spend tens of pages on how Ann Burden feels about being completely alone, and how this sixteen-year-old farm girl is keeping from starving and freezing to death.

Trouble is, I'm hearing plenty about the combating starving and freezing, and precious little about how she feels. Who she *is.* This book is the diary of a traumatized girl. Her entire family died, and their deaths led quite reasonably to her conclusion that she's pretty much it when it comes to the world. She can't leave the valley she lives in -- the rest of the world has been poisoned by a hideous war.

And she doesn't seem to have much reaction to this. She refers occasionally to the family members she's lost, but we never get a sense of them. Was she fonder of one of her brothers than the other? Was she a little afraid of her parents, even as she loved them? Does she wake up from dreams of them that are so real, she feels convinced for a few minutes that this "real" world must be the dream? We hear nothing about any of this. She had a father, a mother, and two brothers. Now they're gone. The end.

Ann is religious enough to keep the local church clean and visit it regularly. No one's left to preach, so she sits and reads the Bible. She's intelligent and devout enough to enjoy doing so (and her favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes -- a nice touch). And that's all we hear.

There needs to be more than that. She needs to be wondering if this is all part of God's plan, and why it happened. She should even wonder if she was chosen to survive for some great purpose -- or if her survival means she's been singled out for punishment. (Great -- now *I* want to write this novel.)

People who are of a religious mindset and who suffer some great blow have one of two reactions. They become extremely devout (sometimes this means converting to a religion not previously their own), or they lose their faith entirely. Or they *think* they've lost their faith, spend some time yelling at their deity, and then come back stronger than ever. At any rate, they have some spiritual response.

This would seem to be doubly important when it comes to a girl who has survived a disaster that is quite literally of Biblical proportions. The end of the world as we know it is mentioned in that Bible she reads. You can't create a Christian character, put her in this kind of situation, and then just *not* have her thinking about the Apocalypse.

But her religious beliefs seem to have been given to her to establish her "good girl" creds. And these are important when the stranger comes to the valley.

Spoiler alert: He turns out to be a jerk.

And guess what? Other than defending herself as much as necessary from him, Ann doesn't have much of a reaction to *this*, either.

Big-time spoiler alert, and also trigger alert: He tries to rape her (he comes nowhere near succeeding). She is able to flee. Because this valley is the only place that hasn't been poisoned by radioactivity and nerve gas, she can't just leave; so she tries to figure out some way of living in proximity with him, while not having to get any closer to him than she has to.

Which is fine. But all we hear about this is the practical side of it. She'd thought this man might become her husband and father of her children someday. She nursed him through life-threatening illness and injury, and continues to take care of him even after he attacked her. (He'd die if she weren't willing to fetch water and food for him -- he's strong enough to be an attempted rapist, but not yet in good enough shape to haul buckets of water.) And this attack is how he thanks her.

And her only recorded response is the practical side of things. No tears of rage or betrayal. She continues to bring him needed food and water without a single thought along the lines of "I should just let him die of thirst. That's a long, painful death. Okay, I can't do that, even to *him,* but I couldn't help *thinking* it." Nothing.

Later, he tries to track her down with the help of her family dog. She has a gun and is watching from a distance. More spoilers: he deliberately shot her with *his* gun, not to kill her but in order to injure her enough to force her to return to him. And what does she think, as she realizes she won't be able to hide from him any longer? *She decides she has to shoot THE DOG.*

I realize there's a philosophy thought-experiment about morality, a sort of what-would-you-do problem: Let's say you saw a stranger and your pet dog drowning. You only have time and strength to save one of them. Which one do you save?

Unless he's Hitler back from the dead, you're supposed to save the human. I assume. But in this case: seriously? The animal is innocent. The guy shot you **after he tried to rape you.** And you're aiming at *which* one of them?

If that's the case, I *need* to hear why. Is it because of religious belief -- shooting him would violate a Commandment? Is it because, after so many people have died, you can't bear to kill one? Is it pure queasiness?

It's never explained. Ann never even *thinks* about shooting this guy. When she considers using her weapon at all, she aims at the dog.

In one way, it was a relief that Mr. Loomis turned out to be a total waste of space. He was incredibly paternalistic and condescending from day one, and I was worried that this was just because the novel was written in the early '70s and he's a grown man and she's just a teenaged girl and isn't it kind of cute the way he knows more than she does about all kinds of things? But no -- he's a full-fledged bastard, and we've had hints of this from the start.

So: good plot, interesting twists, and a strong, surprising ending. But yeah, I'm pretty peeved that a first-person narrative would leave so little sense of the young woman who's supposedly telling her own story.