“Z for Zachariah” by Robert C. O’Brien – highly recommended

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“Z for Zachariah” is told as the journal of a fifteen-year-old girl who is the sole survivor on her family’s farm in a remote, sheltered valley. The rest of America seems to have died under a mixture of nuclear and chemical attack that has destroyed life outside the valley. She writes the journal to provide herself with some company in the hope that, one day, someone may read it and understand the life she’s lived.

The first entries detail how she occupies herself by growing food and maintaining the house and reading book. They also tell the story of how she came to be alone in the valley. She is isolated and very much aware that life she had expected to lead is no longer available to her and that she might have to live out her life in isolation. Then she sees a man in a hazmat suit walking into her valley and things go, slowly, to hell.

The story is gently allegorical. The young woman is resourceful, brave and kind. The man is… beyond her experience. He falls ill shortly after he arrives so it takes some time before his nature reveals itself. I found the tension as it did so almost unbearable.

It took me a long time to read this short book because I could only take the unease and sense of foreboding for short periods. I liked the narrator very much, as I was supposed to, and the male character not at all. The ability to see the oncoming car wreck was unnerving.

When I, and the narrator, finally understood what the man intended, I was surprised by how angry I became.  Of course, I was supposed to be angry at him. That was the author’s intent, but it’s why was angry at him that made everything worse.

If he had been some kind of comic book villain, I could have enjoyed hissing and booing at him and rooting for the young girl to win out. He was not a comic book villain. He was the kind of over-focused, unempathetic, fear and anger driven, intelligent, methodical controlling man that you might meet dozens of in any city crowd.

When there is just him, when he stands without the cover of social convention and the camouflage of good manners and social position, it seemed to me that embodied the attitudes and behaviours that are poisoning the world at the moment and I realised I wanted to extinguish him.

That does not make me a particularly nice person but it does tell me a lot about where some of my day-to-day anger comes from. There is a test that I have never been able to pass. It measures field independent vision. If you have it, you can find dropped car keys easily amongst fallen Autumn leaves without using your fingers. It’s a cognitive function rather than an attribute of your eyes. I am exceptionally bad at it.

This book has blown away the leaves that have hidden things from me or left them half seen or half imagined or felt only with my fingertips. Now I can see clearly those things in the male mindset that I would like to see bred out of existence.

Part of my anger was caused by the realisation that so little has changed, except perhaps for the worse, since this book was published in 1973.

I know this book is taught in American schools. I am now amazed that it hasn’t ended up on some banned book list for letting men, or at least the kind of men that seem to get elected to high office in America, be seen too clearly.

Yet this is not an angry book. The young woman is hurt by what happens and dislikes some of the choices that it forces on her but she remains fundamentally herself and makes different and better choices than my anger-driven-male mindset would have arrived at.

At its heart, this is a very truthful story. Its resolution surprised me and made me think again about my own instincts. It is a novel you could use to discuss ethics with teens or tweens but it doesn’t feel dry or preachy.

“Z for Zachariah” was published posthumously, having been completed by the author’s wife and daughter, guided by his notes. I think that’s a tribute to the man they knew.

The title comes from a section of the book when the young woman is recalling the textbook that was used to teach her to read:

The first page said “A is for Adam,” and there was a picture of Adam standing near an apple tree, dressed in a long white robe – which disagrees with the Bible, but of course it was for small children. Next came “B is for Benjamin.” “C is for Christian,” and so on. The last page of all was “Z is for Zachariah,” and since I knew that Adam was the first man, for a long time I assumed that Zachariah must be the last man.

I strongly recommend listening to the audiobook version of “Z for Zachariah” as Christina Moore’s narration is pretty close to perfect.

There is a movie of the same name that claims to be based on this book but the things it changes – making the young woman older and introducing a second man – suggest to me that Hollywood still isn’t willing or able to look this kind of truth in the eye.

 

 

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