Wednesday, 27 April 2016
Z for Zachariah
While looking through a box of old books from my childhood, I found a dystopian YA novel written long before dystopian YA Novels were A Thing. I read Z for Zachariah in year 8 for English, the year when we really started learning about Literature in earnest. My teacher was Mrs Leppard, and she split the class up into small groups to read and discuss one of a selection of science fiction and speculative fiction. Animal Farm, was one of the others on offer. I remember sitting with three other kids in the cloakroom or the library - (Jo Holt, Sam Irving and one other - possibly Mark Harrison) feeling, even then, that this was what it was to be a student.
Written in the 1970s, Z for Zachariah is set after a nuclear war wipes out masses of the population - perhaps most of the world, perhaps just a region. It is written as the diary of a teenage girl, Ann, whose family farm in a valley has escaped contamination. Her family ventured out of the valley to investigate, and were never seen again. With only the company of her dog, Faro, and the cows and chickens, Ann survives by farming and with resources from the nearby store. Then, one day, a stranger comes to the valley, dressed in a radiation suit. Although Ann is wary of the newcomer at first, she comes to his aid when he becomes sick from swimming in a contaminated stream, and they strike up a tentative friendship. But can he really be trusted?
I had very vivid memories of the first half of Z for Zachariah from reading it at thirteen; we spent several lessons reading the novel slowly, and discussing it, and I still, seventeen years on, could picture Ann's valley, her day-to-day life living without electricity in one green place surrounded by dead land. I recalled the arrival of John Loomis, her wariness of him, his sickness and Ann nursing him back to health. But I think we didn't have enough lessons - or perhaps we got sidetracked in our small groups - to read the entire novel, and the ending was more vague. I probably didn't understand all of what was being implied, or why Loomis went from being an ally to a threat one night. And I remember hurrying through the last chapters on the last day of term, so that I could hand my school book back to my teacher. (I since bought a copy in a charity shop or used bookstore, but hadn't reread it until yesterday.) But it lingered with me. There is a real sense of claustrophobia, when Ann is hiding in the valley. She can't leave, because there is only one radiation suit and Loomis guards it jealously. He gradually proves to be a complex and chilling character, a dangerous control freak, and Ann is trapped with him with no one else for miles around - or further - or anywhere.
Even now, in a bookish landscape full of apocalypses and dystopias, Z For Zachariah stands apart from the rest. It is effective in its simplicity: no totalitarian governments to bring down, no factions, hunger games or political intrigue, just two people in one little corner of the world, trying to survive.