Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien
Read by Christina Moore
Length: 5 Hrs 59 Min
Genre: Post Apocalyptic
Quick Thoughts: The classic Young Adult Post Apocalyptic tale holds up well since my initial reading over 30 years ago. There is a reason this novel is a classic, and it’s themes of overcoming misogyny, the destructiveness of science, and individualism still has value for today.
Note: If you have yet to read this novel, This review may contain some spoilers. BE WARNED!
When I was in elementary school at good old Christ Home Christian School, I remember the bookcase. The bookcase was a shelf of donated books that the kids in the lower grades could sign out and read on their own volition purely for entertainment sake. Growing up in a fundamentalist household, church and school, this was the first time I felt like I could choose my own entertainment. Of course, it never entered my brain the books here where highly vetted acceptable books, just that I could choose them. Through this shelf I had my first boyhood crush on Laura Ingalls Wilder, went on my first otherworld adventures in Narnia, Oz and on the Phantom Tollbooth, and traveled with some strange characters across the Atlantic in the belly of a giant peach. I was also introduced to some rather amusing rats trying to escape from the National Institute of Mental Health. Every once in a while, new books would be added to the bookshelves. One day, a book titled Z for Zachariah by the same author as the NIMH books was added to the shelves. Since the Rats of NIMH was one of my favorites, I just knew I had to read this book. Little did I know that this would be my first foray into the subgenre known as Post Apocalyptic fiction, which would one day become my literary obsession. So, for those of you out there disturbed by my fascination with the end of civilization, you very well may have a bunch of talking rats to blame for it.
Z for Zachariah is the tale of Ann Burden a teenage farm girl from a small town, who due to a geological anomaly finds herself the last resident of a valley that offers protection from the radioactive fallout of a global nuclear war. She lives day to day, supporting herself through hard work, longing for the company of other human beings yet fearing the dangers others may bring. When a strange man wearing a protective suit shows up, her world is forever altered. While not in any way the first Post Apocalyptic novel, for many of my generation, Z for Zachariah was the introduction to the genre and can be listed as a classic example and predecessor to books like The Hunger Games and other modern YA dystopian. It’s also a darkly fascinating tale of claustrophobia and loneliness battling hope in the midst of the fall of humanity.
The main theme of the novel, both as a young elementary student, and now a much older, bordering on middle aged man, is just how stupid men can be. Ann Borden is young and naive sure, and can be frustrating but she is a strong character, full of the right mix of knowledge to survivor the apocalypse. When Mr. Loomis shows up, you can’t help but think he’s hit the jackpot, a young farmer girl who can run the tractor, cook, fix engines and grow crops, plus well, let’s face it, if you believe you are the last man on earth, finding a smart, resourceful 16 year old woman is reason to celebrate. Yet, the chemist, Mr. Loomis, who never had to worry about where his next meal came from before the apocalypse, decides that this young women isn’t his ally in survival, but his property, and not much more valuable than breeding stock. I remember, the younger Bob being flabbergasted by this. Remember, I grew up in a culture where women were encouraged to call their husbands "Lord and Master" and even I found Mr. Loomis to be a stupid misogynistic dillweed before I even understood what the concept of misogyny was. Rereading it now, and understanding things I didn’t as a kid, including the near rape scene, only cemented my belief the Mr. Loomis is not only one of the most despicable characters in literary history, but one of the stupidest.
This is not in anyway to say that Z for Zachariah is a bad novel. I am focusing on the area that stuck out most to me. In reality, Z for Zachariah should be applauded for creating a wonderful strong female character in Ann Burden, who despite her naiveté, displayed true strength in a devastating world. I know if I was to find myself in similar circumstances of this young girl, I would be dead within weeks. O’Brien’s use of the diary format gives us a very limited perception on the story, yet also adds lots of depths to the tale by showing us Ann’s thought processes, and the evolution of her understanding of Loomis. In many ways, this style allows us to see the process of her maturation, from the girl hiding in a cave but dreaming of marrying the mysterious stranger, to the girl who finally bests the highly educated scientist. There is a reason why Z for Zachariah is a classic of the genre. It’s a wonderfully plotted tale that taps into the essential issues of a post apocalyptic world, highlighting the evolving moralities of the changed world.
While the audio production is solid, it also displays one of the problems with the format. Christina Moore reads the first person tale with a sort of stunned coldness at first, morphing eventually into something harder. While this is appropriate for the character, it doesn’t make for the most entertaining of listens. Moore often uses a flat affect to show how much Ann is affected by the world, muting her emotions. This makes some scenes more powerful at the end of the novel, when Ann’s emotions finally shows through, but it also at times gives the book an almost dreamlike flow that creates a barrier between the listener and the tale. Overall, I think Moore gives the right performance which brings out the author’s intent but, this doesn’t always keep the reader entranced as a more emotive performance would have.