Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Retro Review: Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O'Brien

The thing I hate about writing reviews is not being able to discuss what happens in the end!

Okay, that doesn't always bother me, but in the case of Z for Zachariah it does. Because all I want to do right now is sit down with someone and say, "Oh my god, how about when blah took the blah blah," and for them to say, "I KNOW! What about when blah did blah--I soooo didn't see that coming."

But I don't want to ruin this book for you so I'll try and restrain myself.

Z for Zachariah (1975) by Robert C. O'Brien reads like a Judy Blume book, post-nuclear apocalypse. He also wrote Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, which sounds pretty naff but the bf tells me it's brilliant. Way smart rats, apparently.

Ann Burden is fifteen and the last person left alive on Earth--or so she thinks. She's sheltered from fallout in a valley somewhere on the east coast of America. (My US geography is pretty shaky but a local could probably work out exactly where. Boston was mentioned.) One day a man in a plastic suit comes to the valley. He's in his early thirties and seems normal enough from a distance. When he keels over from radiation sickness (the stupid man goes swimming in a stream before checking it with his Geiger counter) Ann nurses him back to health. Feverish for days, the man--Mr Loomis as Ann so old-fashionedly calls him--raves about someone called Edward. It seems Mr Loomis and Edward made the suit, it's the only one in the world, they both wanted it and now Edward is dead. Ann checks the suit and, sure enough, there are three patched-over bullet holes in the chest.

On page 100-101 of my 192-page edition, Ann realises that Mr Loomis has killed Edward, but she does "not know just how bad it is." She writes in her diary, "In a way it depends on what Edward was like." She reasons that if one was acting unreasonably, or dangerously, then the other might be justified in killing him--the suit, after all, offers the only protection available when moving around the wastelands.

Now, if I was an English teacher, the essay question I would pose is: "Do you agree with Ann? Discuss."

In fact, if you want to answer this question, whether you've read the book or not, please feel free below! If you have read the book try not to let later events influence your answer (or give anything away).

After that, things turn deliciously dark.

I read this book in a day and then watched The China Syndrome, so I'm all nucleared out for a wee while! But go to your library and get Z for Zachariah. It's a must for dystopian fans, especially those who like John Wyndham and Isobelle Carmody.

I'm now turning (again) to The Carbon Diaries 2015, another dystopian. I say again cos I had to review some other books and then mislaid it. But it's feeling rather bland and frivolous after Z for Zachariah. Shame.

Last of all, a shout-out to my three followers, Steph, Aimee and Neve. Hello followers! *waves* I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see you there, and know that I'm no longer talking into empty cyberspace :)


  1. It's a great book! I remember reading it during year 9... About six years ago. You've made me want to read it again!

  2. I am a huge fan of dystopian fiction, and I see that I MUST read this one ASAP!! Ordering now...

  3. This one sounds good, I can't believe I hadn't heard about it before. I have read the Mrs Frisby book, as a 'whole-class reader' aged 11. There was some eye-rolling when we were handed it, but actually it was a great story and well told.

    Personally, I agree with Ann (having not read the book). Except, that's probably how the person dropping the bomb felt.

  4. This is one fabulous book. Mr Loomis is one of those stick-with-you characters, and I really have a thing for short books with one setting but with a great sense of place.

  5. Z for Z is great but seems widely misunderstood. The story is full of evidence Ann is an unreliable narrator--self-centered, self-justifying, hypocritical, and paranoid. She is mainly motivated by self-interested fears and wishful thinking, continually deluding herself to suit her feelings and interests. As a result, the story is full of irony. Her selfishness and fear hinder her desire for companionship, causing her to distrust and misjudge Loomis. In the end, she ironically views him as crazy while she acts suicidally and dooms humanity because of paranoia and believing her dreams. But I won't be suprised if some here are shocked that I don't view Loomis as an evil monster.

    As to the question of whether Ann is right that it depends on Edward's character, it might be missing the point like Ann does. It is absurd to think moral judgments of others depend on knowing their character, since that is impossible. This thinking just feeds her doubts. More importantly, she should consider the facts of Loomis's words and actions, and she should give him the chance to explain himself (which she never does).

    She is right in her first judgment that Loomis acted in self-defense, since he needed the safesuit to survive. She's also correct in thinking that he intended to use the suit help others, not just to save himself. The words he repeats to Edward in his delirium show this clearly, as does his earlier explanation of spending many months searching for survivors.

    Yet Ann ignores these facts and still worries that he took the suit only for selfish reasons, intending "to strike out on his own." Worse, without any justification, she even thinks his final journey west supports the idea that he killed for selfish ends. Later, after the "handholding incident" (when his holding her hand makes her fear he's possessive and controlling), she refers to Loomis's "murder of Edward," revealing she has already judged him a murderer without any explanation of her reasoning (and without giving him any chance to defend himself).

    Meanwhile, of course she never questions her own morality. Hypocritically, she blames him for killing a man whose taking the safesuit posed a direct threat to Loomis's life, yet she let Loomis suffer nearly fatal radiation poisoning because of the mere possibility he could be a threat (when she decided not to warn him about bathing in the stream)!

    To be more precise, perhaps, we could ask:
    1. Should Ann view Loomis as a murderer or as a man who killed in self-defense, acting out of fear?
    2. Was Ann justified in letting Loomis bathe in a dead stream, or did she perhaps act more wrongly than Loomis?
    3. What does the evidence of Loomis's words and actions suggest about his character?
    4. What are other examples of Ann's faulty reasoning or questionable judgments?

  6. A couple of other points:

    1. The story is set in the midwest, not in the east. Loomis starts in Ithaca, New York, and travels west for 10 weeks through dead lands.

    2. Though Loomis blames himself for being stupidly careless, he is not really stupid to bathe in the dead creek. He took readings at the lake and understandably assumed the stream flowed from there. Right after the war, Ann and Joseph were about to take water from the creek when they noticed dead fish (signs not available for Loomis). Also, he is understandably eager to bathe after walking 10 weeks in a plastic suit and finding a valley that appears safe.

    There are much more important things to note than Loomis's mistake. First, Ann chooses not to reveal herself to warn him, and she justifies this negligence by speciously telling herself she isn't sure about the stream--though the only thing she's unsure of is the reason it's dead. This is one of the main instances of her deluding herself to suit her feelings.

    Second, it should be noted that Loomis never blames Ann for not warning him, though he seems surprised to hear that she was watching and knew about the stream. He asks her twice, "You knew?" as if he's doing a doubletake. Instead of blaming her, he only blames himself for being careless, and he acts so calmly about his poisoning that Ann is impressed by his practicality--knowing that she would be hysterical in the same situation. Yes, she probably would be, since we see how much her feelings influence her thoughts. Contrast Loomis's behavior here with Ann's last words to him at the end, when she self-righteously blames him for not thanking her for nursing him through his sickness (while forgetting her own negligence in allowing it!). Even Ann recognizes the childishness of her last words, though she doesn't grasp how petty and unjust she really is.

  7. Fact is, though, if Ann had NOT been in the valley, Loomis absolutely WOULD have died purely through his own negligence (if you prefer not to call it stupidity). He would've taken that bath, become ill, and died, period. She saved his life by stepping up to save him from the consequences of his mistake. So he still owes her, big-time.

    And while a case may be made that she was under a moral obligation to disregard her reasonable fears for her own safety and risk attack to save the stranger from the consequences of his own misjudgement, I think I'm on pretty safe ground to say that a person who may initially be guilty of negligence in not risking herself to protect a possibly dangerous stranger from his own mistake (but then makes up for it by saving the man) is still morally superior to the man who then shoots at the girl who saved his life at least four times on three separate occasions.