Sunday, June 10, 2007

Survival the American Way: Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life as We Knew It. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2006.

In this post-disaster story the moon is hit by an asteroid and knocked off its course. This results in tsunamis. volcanoes and fallout winter.

All of this is seen through the diary of one sixteen year old girl, Lisa, whose mother manages to be super-competent. The theme of this book is Family Comes First. This is the handbook for the good familialist survivalist.

The moment things look bad Mom takes the kids shopping and pretty much clears the supermarket. There is lots of advice on what to buy in these eventualities--canned food and vitamins take precedence, rice didn't show up, but it's what I'd buy. Then they retreat to their house and ignore pretty much the whole world except their neighbour, an elderly lady. The rest of the book shows us the infrastructure breaking down--no church, the hospitals collapse etc. etc. And over and over again the message is not to tell anyone else that one has food, to hunker down, look after the family, and prioritise which child will survive. Up to a point this is plausible: America is an individualist society, but it is rather useful that they are never attacked and so never have to think in terms of communitarian defense, and even more useful that they don't know their neigbours so never have to think of a close neighbour in trouble, and the schools close so they don't see their friends getting hungrier and hungrier (with the exception of the evangelical Christian who chooses to starve to death). In fact, they don't lose anyone important in all of this: they all get flu but live. And although Mom's boyfriend dies--he is a doctor in the local hospital-- somehow, while he is spoken of as a hero what comes over is two things: first that Mom was right not to move him into the house and make him family, because that would have jeopardised their own survival, and second that somehow, he was a bit of a fool in not putting himself first. Pfeffer would be hurt about this last bit it's not what she intends, but it is the subliminal message because over and over again, altruism is punished (and I mean that literally as Lisa is told off for every kind action she makes that reaches beyond "blood").

And the big joke?

At the very end they are rescued by the government and government food aid. Think about that... someone, somewhere, was thining about the community, thinking beyond their family, thinking about others. Had everyone in the the USA behaved the way this family behaves, there wouldn't have been anyone riding to the rescue.

A couple of small things about the book: if Mom had brought the plants in to the solar room *before* they died it might have helped. And I was interested to see at casaubonblog in the entry, "The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged, Either" (Sunday June 10, 2007, this comment;

A recent Ohio educational study suggests that the average American 10th grader runs educationally behind the average Amish 15 year old - and the Amish kid left school two years before and no only doesn't have a computer in her classroom, she doesn't have electric lights. Poor adults in Kerala who get their news not by television or computer (don't have 'em) but by weekly newspaper are overwhelmingly better informed than average American adults, according to Bill McKibben. An political research firm in the Netherlands found that Brazilian 10 year olds in favelas had a slightly better understanding of globalization than middle class Americans with computers.

This book bears out this kind of lost literacy: although there are sweeping comments about other nations already being harmed, and some even destroyed, after the intial stocktaking these countries disappear from the mental map. New York and San Francisco remain constant, but otherwise the world has shrunk to the home town and the United States. There are no places either between or beyond. This is so extreme that when Mom is trying to explain why volcanoes are a threat even when far away, she struggles to do so without reference to the 1883 Krakatoa explosion--presumably the readers can't be expected either to know about it, or to care--it's not in the USA after all, it's not family

On the last note: I have to deliver the book by December. I will start writing again next week, and reading has begun already. From today I'll try to blog at least every second day.


Blogger Cathy Butler said...

Have you ever come across John Rowe Townsend's *Noah's Castle* (some time in the 1970s)? Sounds like a rather similar premise.

12:13 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Not sure. I've read other stuff by him. It was marked by te 70s theme that the adults of course had it all wrong. Modern sf for kids veers to "the adults know best, but find the right adults."

12:07 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

Farah, I'm glad you're back to regular blogging, though if I took every bit of your thinking to heart, I'd probably be so paralysed that I could never write another word! (My new YA novel is much more SFonal.)

4:29 AM  

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