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Dreams Stay Big

The Girl Who Owned a City

By O. T. Nelson 

24 Sep, 2020

Illimitable Dominion


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O. T. Nelson’s 1975 (revised 1995) The Girl Who Owned a City is a standalone juvenile post-apocalyptic pandemic novel.

Weeks ago, ten-year-old Lisa was just another kid, dependent on her parents, her responsibilities those of a child. Then a terrible disease killed every person over the age of twelve. Now Lisa is the adult of her house, the sole guardian of her younger brother Todd. It’s a big responsibility.

Lisa not only accepts it. She sets out to rebuild the world she remembers.

Scavenging local homes and stores was a viable short-term strategy, one that appealed to many kids. Those kids had childish preferences, passing over useful goods in favour of candy. Even so, the local shelves are barer each time Lisa ventures out of her home. Supermarket food has been rotting after electrical power died. 

Lisa has enough wit to consider other sources of food. Grocery warehouses, even farms. She commandeers a car to transport her wealth. Alas, it is soon apparent that stockpiling food is to invite theft. Tom Logan’s Chidester Gang raids her pantry while she’s out foraging. Lisa needs some way to defend her property.

Lisa has food. Her neighbours need food. Lisa offers the other kids the food they desperately need – provided they join Lisa’s Grand Avenue Militia and work in the common defense. It’s that or wait to be drafted into the Chidester Gang (if useful) … or be left to starve.

Lisa has a bold vision of the world of tomorrow, one where the lights are on again and nobody willing to work need worry about starvation. If Grand Avenue turns out to be indefensible, then she will find a castle. One with Lisa in charge.


There are a lot of implied corpses in this book. Every adult in the world (well, unless some are in sealed refuges) and however many kids starved to death, got sick, or died violently in the month or so since the die off began. On the plus side, there’s no cannibalism, which puts the book one up on a lot of rivals. 

This book has an interesting genesis:

O. T. Nelson’s initial impetus for writing a novel was to help pay for an expansion of his house-painting business. 

This seems to have worked out for him. In general, though, write a best seller” is kind of a high-risk strategy. 

Lisa has a clear idea what steps to take to rebuild the world

We’re teaching farming, medicine, defense, machinery, and building. Other courses will be added later. 

It may be that a collection of twelve and unders do not in fact have the experience needed to teach these courses, but A for Effort. 

Lisa is a natural autocrat who is willing to have a council as long as the council understands that Lisa is the one in charge. The one who, as the title says, owns a city by right of having thought of how to stock one before anyone else did1. I’ve never particularly wondered what sort of society might be founded by a ten-year-old who has apparently read Atlas Shrugged. Now I know.

I am not entirely certain why this book has stayed in print for forty-five years when better written novels have vanished. Apparently, there’s something here that appeals to readers, even if I can’t see what it is. 

The Girl Who Owned a City is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Locally. What is going on elsewhere is largely a matter of rumour.