Book Review: Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien (1976)

April 15th, 2013 12:20 pm by Kelly Garbato

Creepy and Horrifying

five out of five stars

Trigger alerts for attempted rape, violence, misogyny, and speciesism.

It’s been one year since the bombs fell like raindrops across the earth. One year since Ann Burden’s remaining human family – father, mother, brother, cousin, and two elderly neighbors – set off in search of survivors, never to return. One by one, the radio broadcasts went silent. Nestled in her protected valley home – fortuitously equipped with a small working farm and a well-stocked general store, and fed by a fresh, uncontaminated underground spring – Ann thought she was the last person in the world. That is, until she spots the thin column of campfire smoke rising from beyond the ridge. Day by day, it slowly draws nearer her valley home, leaving 15-year-old Ann in a hopeful panic.

Ann’s idyllic – but oftentimes painfully lonely and monotonous – existence is shattered with the arrival of this mysterious stranger. A chemist from Ithaca, Mr. Loomis helped develop the only known anti-radiation suit in existence. In a world ravaged by nuclear war, it represents the only safe way out of the valley; their only lifeline to the rest of the world.

* Warning: minor spoilers follow! *

Written by Robert C. O’Brien – the man behind one of my childhood favorites, The Secret of NIMH – the manuscript for Z for Zachariah was finished by his daughter, Jane Leslie Conly (who also penned a prequel and sequel to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), and published posthumously. The book takes the form of a first-person narrative in a diary kept by Ann. (The “real time” format is broken only once, when Ann foreshadows Faro’s death; though it’s certainly possible that that particular entry was written later in time.) Creepy and horrifying, it’s a deceptively simple story that twists your intestines and refuses to let go.

Though it’s intended for younger readers – ages 12 and up – adults may find it enjoyable as well, and in fact may parse out more complex meanings. As some reviewers have noted, the pastoral valley setting – during the lush, green blooms of spring- and summertime, no less – can be read as an allegory for the Garden of Eden (wherein an unwilling Eve runs from Adam screaming). Ann’s choice to leave the valley rather than kill Mr. Loomis to protect what’s hers – as frustrating as her hyper-developed (even masochistic) sense of fairness is at times – reflects her decision to grow up and rejoin society, rather than plod along in seclusion.

Z for Zachariah is and isn’t what I expected: given the book’s overtly religious title, coupled with the brief description on the back cover, I’d assumed the stranger would be a sort of religious prophet -slash- cult leader, collecting and subjugating young women in the name of God and humanity. While the book is indeed shades of The Handmaid’s Tale (but with greater death and destruction), Mr. Loomis is not at all the religious type. And yet, I was met with the sneaking, sick suspicion that Loomis meant to use Ann the same way he used the seeds and cows: to repopulate the earth and maintain its biodiversity. In Loomis’s eyes, Ann is not a human, but an object to be exploited to his own ends. That his agenda is fueled by science rather than religion seems an inconsequential detail.

Some reviewers describe Loomis as “crazy” or “delusional.” While it’s true that his sickness and resulting fever resulted in temporary insanity, after his recovery from radiation poisoning the only sickness he exhibited was that of misogyny. Just as the cows, chickens, and fishes were his to use as he saw fit (speciesism), Loomis considered Ann his property as well (misogyny). At its most extreme, this attitude manifested itself in Loomis’s attempted rape of Ann, and again when he subsequently hunted her after she dared run away (yet still continued to do all the chores at Loomis’s direction, and further shared the fruits of her labor with him). Yet his feelings of entitlement and supremacy are still readily apparent in the smaller details: how Loomis assumed control of the valley’s resources, bossed Ann around, and watched her “like an overseer.”

At multiple times throughout the story, I found myself wishing that Ann had just left him alone in his sanitized tent to die a gruesome and horrible death. But perhaps his lifetime of solitude is punishment enough? Ann certainly seemed to think so. Yet I pity the living beings still stranded there with him.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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One Response to “Book Review: Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien (1976)”

  1. Book Review: Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis (2013) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Robert C. O’Brien’s 1976 novel Z for Zachariah. Though the details are quite different, Not a Drop to Drink evokes the creepy, isolated, desolate […]

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