Z for Zachariah was Robert C. O’Brien’s fourth and final novel. He died before finishing it, and his wife and daughter completed the last few chapters from his notes. This book, of all his novels, deals head-on with what O’Brien referred to as his concern about “the seeming tendency of the human race to exterminate itself.”
The plot is quite simple: a nuclear war has destroyed everything. Sixteen-year-old Ann Burden is living alone in a secluded valley that has somehow escaped the radiation. The only explanation given is that the valley has always “had its own weather.”
Ann’s parents and family left the family farm one day to see how the neighboring Amish families had survived the war, and they never returned. Ann has been living on her own for some months, raising chickens, caring for the cows, planing crops, and just getting through the days. But now someone is coming. She sees the smoke first, and watches the progress of whoever it is as he approaches the farm.
When he appears, it is a man wearing a radiation suit. Ann very prudently hides herself in a cave and observes for some time, but when the man bathes in a radiation-poisoned stream and becomes ill, she ventures down to care for him.
The man, whose name is Loomis, is a scientist (ofcourse he is!). He is a chemist from Cornell who had been doing research on plastics and polymers for a government-funded project in the hills outside of Ithaca. His job was to help create a safe-suit, as well as other things like water and air filters, that would allow soldiers to continue to function in areas that had been atom-bombed. (See, didn’t I say that O’Brien had kind of a Cold War fixation?)
Anyway, Loomis has the prototype suit and all the other apparatus, which has enabled him to walk from Ithaca to Ann’s valley. He does get quite sick with radiation sickness for a time, but eventually recovers.
Once she is over her initial skittishness, Ann is delighted to have Loomis around. He has helpful suggestions–such as how she can get gas for the tractor, thus enabling her to plow a much larger garden patch–and Ann begins to imagine that there might be a future for them together.
But there is a dark side, too. When he is sick and delirious, she learns that there was another man with him in the cave outside Ithaca, and that the other man had been attempting to leave, wearing the safe-suit. Loomis shot him. This fits with what Ann has discovered about Loomis–that he is very protective of the suit, and also very controlling.
The more he recovers from his illness, the more controlling he gets, until eventually Ann realizes that if she stays in the house, she will effectively be his prisoner, so she hides out in the cave. But even that is not enough, and Loomis clearly intends to find her. He stalks her, and even succeeds in shooting her in the leg. Then Ann has a moment of clarity:
“And I suddenly realized that he was not trying to miss. He wanted to shoot me in the leg so I could not walk. He wanted to maim, not to kill me. So that he could catch me. It was a simple plan, a terrible one. Starvation would force me to come to the house or the store. And the gun would keep me from going away again. And I knew he would try until he succeeded.”
Ann concludes that there is no possibility of peaceful coexistence, and she knows that Loomis will not leave the valley. So she decides that her only option is to leave the valley herself. And to do that, she will need to steal the safe-suit. She knows that Loomis will shoot her if he has the chance, but she is determined, and she succeeds. She has a final showdown with Loomis after she steals the suit, telling him, “I don’t want to live with you hunting me as if I were an animal, and I will never agree to be your prisoner.” He begs her not to leave him alone, but she reminds him, “You have food. You have the tractor and the store. You have the valley.”
The last words in the book are: “As I walk, I search the horizon for a trace of green. I am hopeful.”
So again, we have O’Brien tempering his pessimism about what people can and will do with hope.
Of the four novels, this is the only one written in first person, in the form of journal entries. I think he does a pretty good job with Ann’s voice, mixing a kind of country competence with naivete. It lends a real immediacy to the narrative, especially when Ann is on the run from Loomis, and when she is planning her escape from the valley.
As a bad guy, Loomis falls somewhere between Dr. Schutz of Group 17 and Dr. Schultz of Mrs. Frisby. We actually feel a bit sorry for him, wandering the country looking for other survivors in the only existing safe-suit, but at the same time, he is overbearing, and has no idea of how to live in this new world. When Ann suggests, at one point, that she could wear the safe-suit and walk to a nearby town for books at the library, he gets violently upset with her, ordering her never to touch the suit. He has no interest in Ann, except as someone who can possibly help him, with her knowledge of farming. He rarely makes an effort to talk to her, or to find out anything about her, but at the same time, he doesn’t want her to have a separate life. He’s not actually evil, although he’s certainly ruthless.
Ann, like O’Brien’s other protagonists, is smart, resourceful, and thoughtful.
My final summing-up of O’Brien’s book would be this, using your categories:
Masterpiece: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Of course. This is just a great book that works on so many levels.
Minor Masterpiece: Z for Zachariah.
Must-Read: The Silver Crown.
For Fans: A Report from Group 17.
And one final note: O’Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote two sequels to Mrs. Frisby. They are Racso and the Rats of NIMH, and R.T., Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH. Both owe much more to the Don Bluth movie version than to the original book. Both are pale imitations of O’Brien’s masterpiece, and I’m relieved that Conly stopped after the second book and started writing her own books, which were much better. Among other issues I have with the so-called sequels was the way in which she tried to wrap up all the loose ends that O’Brien left in Mrs. Frisby, such as which rats had died in the rose bush, and how things had worked out in Thorn Valley. As you know, I don’t have any problems with a little ambiguity, but Conly seemed to want to beat every horse until it was fully dead.
Okay, that’s it for my first try at a Completist post. I know you’re off at the Eureka Leadership thing this week, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, since I know you’ve read at least three of these books.
P.S. One more side note: there is a movie of Z for Zachariah starring Chris Pine as Loomis that has just finished filming in New Zealand. It will be out later this year or sometime next year.