Monday, April 9

Life As We Knew It

by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt 2006

What could be more benign than the moon, cycling through the night sky, orbiting Earth and inspiring song and romance.

Bringing with it the end of life as we know it.

Miranda's journal entries quickly bring us up to speed. Her parents are separated, her father's remarried and his new young wife is newly pregnant. Her older brother is finishing up his first year at college and her younger brother thinks of nothing but baseball. Among Miranda's close friends she counts a girl enamored with her Born Again minister. Another friend died in an accident last year. Due to an injury Miranda has had to give up ice skating for swimming but she still follows the rise of a local boy on his way toward the Olympics.

Then there's all this talk -- excited talk -- about an asteroid on a collision course with the moon. The scientists have made their calculations and deemed the event historic but safe. The face of the moon has shown a history of asteroid damage and this current event promises to be spectacular, viewable with binoculars if not with the naked eye.

Miscalculation. The density of the asteroid was greater than anticipated. The moon is knocked from its orbit, closer to the Earth. Tides erupt into tsunamis all over the world. Earthquakes. Volcanoes awaken. The shoreline of every continent is swallowed. News vanishes from coastal radio and television networks. The moon sits uncomfortably close to the horizon.

Panic sets in. Miranda's mom has preservation instincts enough to grab as much cash as she can and go shopping for perishables. Miranda, her younger brother Jonny and their close family friend Mrs. Nesbit all help stockpile goods for the pantry. Miranda feels it's all a bit much, but then everyone is doing it so maybe her mom knows what she's doing. Families start to leave town, kids stop going to school. News comes in spurts from landlocked cities: rolls of the dead are read. The electricity begins to falter. The sky is covered in volcanic ash, the temperature rises, then falls sharply. How long with the heating oil and gas last? What kind of a winter is coming?

How long will Miranda and her family last?

As a member of Gen X (or the tail end of the Boomers, depending on where you set your marker) I'm one of those who have never had to learn first hand what bad times could be like. We've suffered depressions, but not like in the 20's and 30's. We've seen wars, and war protests, but it never really challenged our daily lives the way World War II brought on rationing and home front sacrifice. The Holocaust is something in history books, not living memory. I've seen my fair share of earthquakes (1971 and 1989), watched the hurricanes and tornadoes on the news, read about famine and disaster the world over. But the members of The Greatest Generation have done their job a little too well by cocooning the rest of us from the realities they vowed never to suffer again. We have not, as sheltered Americans, as world citizens en masse, had the personal experience of knowing what we would do when pressed to our limits.

Which is why some of us like reading about Earth shattering events that provoke those corners of our brains to ask "What would I do in that situation?" I couldn't make a steady diet of books and movies like that, like Life As We Knew It, but I could consume my fair share. I think many teens do, and for similar reasons -- because we want to compare our own emotions and reactions with those of the characters. We want to be right, and where we're wrong we want to know how and why. The book, movie or play become personal, we judge the characters and evaluate the situations and run a parallel narrative in our heads. Yes, hoard as much as you can, share with no one, and think about what you do when people get desperate. Can you second guess the medical concerns, the biological variables, the emotional trauma? When the food runs scarce who eats less, who eats more and who gives up all together?

I think Pfeffer has put together a great little story here, one that opens itself naturally to questions of morals and values. That alone probably prohibits it from use in the classroom (because morals and values aren't measured on standardized tests) but it shouldn't prevent whole-hearted recommendations to teens. I have a few questions and items I wish were addressed in the book -- political information, how the governments survived and some of the social mechanics of community, particularly after the first winter -- but perhaps that means I can look forward to a sequel. Honestly, there probably isn't any way to include the political in a journal reporting on a closed system like a single family's survival, still one can always hope.

Hope. Yeah, that's in there as well. The hope that Miranda can one day go to the prom, that the worst is over and that, with some adjustment, life as she once knew it will one day return.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

She is writing a companion novel, one set in New York. I'm looking forward to seeing how she addresses some of the issues that you mentioned, too. I've been doing some musing myself on what it is about these post-apocalypse type stories that makes them so compelling. Lots of reasons, but I think you touch on one of the most important - the wondering what we would do in the same situation.

I also just read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Quite bleak. I didn't find it as compelling, I think because the apocalypse was so far along by the start of the book that there weren't a lot of decisions left to me made. Just gritty survival, and some question about how far you'd be willing to go to survive. Anyway, thanks for an interesting discussion.