Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 Z for Zachariah1 is a stand-alone post-apocalypse novel.
The war began in the spring. One week later it was over. The valley in which the Burden farm lay was spared by a quirk of geography and weather. Death lies beyond the hills bordering the valley.
Fifteen-year-old Ann Burden’s family never returned from their final attempt to find survivors outside the valley. After they vanished, Ann tended her farm alone save for the surviving animals. As far as she knows she is the last human on Earth.
One day, a strangely garbed stranger appears.
The figure approaches the valley slowly. Ann has time to consider her response. Prudence wins out. She retreats to a handy cave to see what the stranger does once they reach the farmhouse.
The man inside the radiation suit does not hesitate to make the farmhouse and farmstead his own. However, in his glee at finding an oasis he makes a terrible error. He baths in the creek rather than the spring-fed pond. The creek comes from outside the valley and is tainted with fallout. The stranger falls deathly ill.
Believing the stranger is too sick to present a danger, Ann gives in to her charitable impulses. She tends the man. She learns many things about him. She learns that his name is John Loomis. That Loomis created the radiation-impervious suit, the only one of its kind. That Loomis murdered Edward, the other man in his shelter, to keep Edward from taking the suit.
Loomis has grand plans for the farm. Once he is well enough, he acts on them. Ann eludes his attempt to rape her, then flees back to her cave. For the moment, she is safe.
Loomis is determined to control all of the farm’s resources, including Ann. He commences a game of cat and mouse, determined to force Ann to submit and willing to resort to any means that leaves her alive, if not able-bodied.
One by one, all the resources of the valley are methodically denied to Ann. If she could flee the valley, she might be safe… but Loomis has the only suit.
There is a dog. Don’t get attached to the dog. Turns out “the dog dies” is this week’s running theme.
This is the same Robert C. O’Brien who wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Don’t expect NIMH’s effervescent sense of humor and boundless optimism. Mrs. Frisby may have faced eviction and a sick child, but she had another place to live, as well as allies. In this book, Ann’s entire family is dead and she has no place else to go2.
Ann has been lucky: a protected valley, a valley store she can pillage, potable water, and a working farm. But that’s just plot requirement; if she hadn’t been lucky, she’d be dead and there would be no story.
Because the novel is told as a series of diary entries, the reader gets a very clear idea of Ann’s thought processes. She’s naïve but not stupid. She does not know much about the world outside Burden Valley, but she is intimately familiar with the valley and its contents. It’s not terribly surprising that Ann proves adept at eluding Loomis, who may be smart3 but who discounts Ann as an unruly child (or domestic animal).
Loomis is a scientist, which doesn’t suggest a flattering image of scientists. But do consider that the military industrial complex has killed almost every human (not to mention most of the plants and animals). I don’t think the author intended to flatter scientists.
I was momentarily tempted to add this novel to a list of books about Eves Who Don’t Want to Be Eves, but realized that this book does not belong on this list. Ann had mused about eventually marrying Loomis4 before he attacked her. Had he had the self-control to sit on his hands, he would have fared better.
O’Brien intended this as an adult novel. There are certainly adult themes. Nevertheless, Z won the Edgar Award for best mystery fiction in the juvenile category. Grim reading for any kids who picked up the book on the strength of that award.
Z for Zachariah is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Waterloo Region locals can order Z for Zachariah through Words Worth Books.
1: There have been a number of film adaptations of this novel. The 1984 UK adaptation moved the story to Wales. The 2015 US preserved the title and little else.
2: I should note that there is no guarantee that the valley’s protective weather will remain unchanged for long. The catastrophe will have disturbed the climate and ferocious storms, bringing fallout from outside, are likely. Unlikely: the survival of the human race. If radiation doesn’t kill everyone, the limited gene pool will.
3: Loomis is smart, but not smart enough to refrain from killing and eating one of the few remaining chickens.
4: It’s not that Ann is attracted to Loomis. It’s just that she has always expected to be married at some point and Loomis is the only available man.