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Z for Zachariah
Robert C. O'Brien
Simon Pulse, 240 pages

Z for Zachariah
Robert C. O'Brien
Robert C. O'Brien (aka Robert Leslie Conly), born in 1918, entered Williams College in 1935 but left in his second year. Although he later studied for a time at Juilliard, he went on to receive his Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Rochester in 1940. He worked as a journalist for National Geographic Magazine. He died in 1973 when writing the last chapter of Z for Zachariah, so his family finished the book for him.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dan Shade

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Ann Burden is alone and she is scared. She is also a remarkable woman in spite of her girlish years (not quite 16 at the beginning of the novel). The world as we know it has ended by nuclear disaster. We are, appropriately, given little to no details of the war (although there used to be a website that demonstrated what would happen to Ann if the bombs were to fall today), because that's not what this book is about. Z for Zachariah is about the inner strength of women, and how it rises to the surface when faced with horrible adversity and circumstances. After reading Z for Zachariah you may still think of women as the fairer sex, but you will also know why they are the revered gender. "I am woman, here me cry," was never more appropriate than for this novel.

Ann has survived because she lives is a deep valley surrounded by an enormous mountain range. I picture it to be somewhere out west in the Rockies. While reading the book, I am often reminded of my walks across Brigham Young University campus between classes. It always amazed me that some of the peaks were still snow capped in late June and early July. I picture Ann's valley to be somewhat like the valley wherein Provo, Utah and BYU can be found. However, Ann's mountains are so closely packed together, and so tall, that the wind and storms fail to carry the deadly radiation into the valley. The rest of the nation is a charred and barren wasteland while Ann's valley remains fertile and verdant. The circumstances that leave Ann alone in this valley are almost comical, but are so also true to human nature. We just have to know, don't we? And we have to see it with our own eyes, right? We just can't let sleeping dogs lie. So Ann is left alone while the rest of the family goes to take a peek over the mountain.

In this beautiful valley surrounded by majestic mountains, Ann lives in her parent's house on the family farm. She has everything she needs to survive (i.e., cows, chickens, seed, and fields to grow food) except human companionship. Ann has, however, come to terms with being alone for the rest of her life and is somewhat excited (yet wary) the day Mr. Loomis comes walking over the mountain. His green plastic suit covers him completely and his breathing apparatus hides his face as he pulls a cart covered in plastic tarp of the same color. Mr. Loomis' arrival changes everything.

Robert C. O'Brien paints with a very fine brush and his small strokes cover every detail. The reader is held captive from one page to the next watching Ann Burden deal with tragedy and loss. The girl who once had everything could end up with nothing at all. The reader is plunged into Ann's world as she spins ever deeper toward total disaster but, amazingly, without despair. Ann just keeps on going. She's like the Energizer Bunny only tougher and smarter. I like to think I know a little bit about women. After all, I've been married to the same one for 31 years. In my area of social science, a research study with only one subject is not considered reliable and valid unless that one subject has been studied intensely for a long, long time. I've been watching and taking mental notes for 31 years.

I've watched my wife 'keep on going' through the tragic birth of one son who requires total custodial care by us. I observed her when the nurse in the infant intensive care unit told her that James would never drink from a bottle. She said, "Oh yes he will!" I further observed her when the physical and occupational therapists at his school told her that James would never drink from a cup. She said, "Oh yes he will!" and never gave up till he did. It has been one thing after another with him all the 28 years of his life. From operations to loosen hamstrings or to wiring a stainless steel rod to his spinal cord. He has degenerated from having extra nourishment fed through a tube threaded through his nose and into his stomach to being totally fed though a tube directly connected to his stomach via a 'button.' No more chocolate pudding for James. Still she does not despair. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day she keeps going on. There is something that Ann Burden and my wife share which Robert C. O'Brien has captured on paper. I, however, am incapable of giving it a label. It's a determination coupled with stubbornness and great love. Although Ann does not have a disabled son, she loves the farm and its animals down to the last blade of grass.

Where am I going with this? you ask, and I say that I have long known that women were the stronger sex. From the moment of conception they have the advantage (and I'm not even going to discuss sexed linked chromosomal problems as a result of having a Y chromosome -- that's a dissertation). If you have a miscarriage, there is a 90 percent chance the embryo or fetus was male because males are genetically flawed from conception. More male babies are still-born, die in infancy, have a greater chance of suffering some congenital problem, fail to thrive or die in childhood. More males die of wild and crazy accidents between birth and the end of puberty. Hey, there's a reason why my sons are paying premium dollars for auto insurance and my daughter is not. Finally, because women are naturally healthier and do not have the male propensity for heart disease and cancer, they live longer. Statistically men should marry a woman 5 to 10 years older so that they can spend more of their life together. Most wives end up widows for their last twenty years or so.

OK, I'll stop beating the dead horse and hope I have established that women are special. God made man first and immediately improved upon the design. Ann Burden has a spark of fire inside her that makes her fight to survive. The difference between Ann and Mr. Loomis is that Ann fights fair and Mr. Loomis has no... well, you had better read the book.

One final thing about this book is that it is a great book for introducing people to post-apocalyptic science fiction, whether they are old or young. Especially those who are a bit wimpy and would not survive such classics as No Blade of Grass by John Christopher, or Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, or newer works such as Shade's Children by Garth Nix.1 Although dark in its subject matter, Z For Zachariah is palatable for most readers. Awful things happen almost before you realize what has gone down. I have read this book so many times I've lost count. I keep five copies on hand at all times to loan or give away. The character played by Mel Gibson in the movie Conspiracy Theory felt compelled to buy a copy of The Catcher In The Rye whenever he saw it. Well, I'm compelled to buy copies of Z for Zachariah whenever I see one -- you just can't have enough copies of Z for Zachariah. It seems to be the kind of book that cycles through your life and speaks to you saying, "It's time to read me again."

Robert C. O'Brien died before he finished Z for Zachariah. It was finished from his notes by his wife and daughter Jane. I highly recommend it for your reading pleasure. Z For Zachariah is an American Library Association Notable Book and the Winner of The Edgar Allan Poe Award for best Juvenile Mystery. For all the times I've read it, I can't tell where Robert's writing ends and is picked up by his wife Sally and daughter Jane.

Perhaps O'Brien, who died of a heart attack in 1973, learned so much about women from observing his own wife and three daughters (he also had one son). He seems to have drawn heavily from his life experiences; a troubled childhood, a love for the out-of-doors and a farm to where he moved his family when he was a reporter in Washington, DC.


1 Z For Zachariah was recommended to me by a friend who is very selective about her post-apocalyptic fiction. I love her for a great many things but will always remember the day she gave me a copy of Z for Zachariah.

(Portions of this review were previously published at lostbooks.org which is temporarily down as ownership is transferred.)

Copyright © 2010 by Dan Shade

Dan Shade is a retired college professor who loves to read young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But he doesn't draw the line there. He also enjoys writing science fiction and hopes to publish someday. In the meantime, you can find him at lostbooks.org (under construction).


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