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  • Jennifer Walker

Z is for Zachariah, by Robert C. O'brien

I don't often throw books across the room when I'm finished with them - I love books! - but this one went skidding across the carpet as soon as I read the last word.


Big spoiler(s) coming.


Jennifer Walker editor

The world ends after a nuclear war and the childhood home of the only girl left is a veritable utopia - green grass, potable water, livestock, garden, home, and a fully-stocked general store half a mile up the road. She grew up on the farm and so even has the knowledge base to make all of her resources work for her. She wants for nothing but companionship. You could not script a better location for riding out a nuclear winter.


When a random guy twice her age shows up and promptly exhibits signs of radiation poisoning, she moves him into her dead brother's room and bends over backwards to nurse him back to life. When he turns out to be a tyrannical jerk (understatement), what does she do?


a) Contemplates ways to get him out of her house and her valley; or

b) Moves out of her own home to live in a cave while continuing to do all the farm work and to bring him a steady supply of food.


But she's only 15, you might argue. She was raised sheltered in a bygone era when people took are of others. Ok, sure. So when he starts hunting her with her own dog, what does she do?


a) Contemplates ways to get him out of her house and her valley, by any means possible; or

b) Decides she must shoot her dog to prevent it from leading the jerk to the front door of her cave.


But she's never shot at a person before, you might argue. (Yes, she has a gun, and bullets, and knows how to use them because after all she grew up on a farm.) So after her dog dies of radiation sickness, and after he finally shoots her in the foot, what does she do?


a) Contemplates killing him and tossing his body out of the valley to rot in the nuclear wasteland that surrounds her utopia; or

b) Decides to steal his special anti-radiation suit and walk out of the valley because she had a dream that told her there were other valleys like hers somewhere out there.


And that's how it ends, with her hiking over the ridge in an anti-radiation suit and with a little red wagon with some food in it. Jerk gets the valley, chock full of everything he'll need for the rest of time.


Who on earth would do that?? Who would not defend their home? Who would never once feel the tiniest bit of indignation that this random guy, this guy that she nursed 24/7 and gave her dead father's pajamas to, took over her valley? I get that she is excited to interact with another human. I get that she's young and reluctant to have to kill someone.


But not even once does she even think - hey, what if I shot him? Not even when she lines up her shotgun on her dog who is about to lead him right to her and the guy is 18 inches from the leashed dog?


The writing is perfectly lovely. O'Brien has a sparse, spare style that suits a story about there being nothing left in the world. This was a page-turner, although eventually that was more because I could not believe O'Brien was actually going to have her leave.


It does have a YA feel to it, which isn't surprising given what else he has written.


The Author's Note does say that he died before completing this book and it was finished by his family after his death. I can only hope he had a different ending in mind because this was one of the most frustrating book endings I have come across in a very long time.



Publication date: 1974


Not part of a series.



The first step to writing a terrific post-apocalyptic novel is reading what is already out there in the genre. Once you've written your own and are ready for an editor and/or proofreader, I'd be honored to read your work. Together we will make your book shine!



Jennifer Walker freelance editor