Z is for Zachariah by Robert O’Brien infuriated me. I admit to not having read or seen Fifty Shades of Gray, but in the same way comments about that have seeped into my brain about whether that is a story of female empowerment or domination, I had the same uneasiness about this book.
A female main character doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact I have really enjoyed apocalyptic books about flawed women who fight to be better even as they fight to survive. Initially, I thought Ann Burden; the only female character in this book was the near perfect heroine. After all, she just might be the only female left on earth, indeed for all she knows she is the only survivor period. She uses her knowledge as a farm girl to survive and while hers is a lonely situation, she manages to mentally be in pretty good shape for a teen who has not only lost her whole family, but literally everyone in the world. It was that sympathy for the loneliness of her existence that made me initially overlook her glaring mistakes when one day a stranger appears in her valley.
In the most extreme example of a microclimate ever, Ann happened to live in a valley that somehow was not affected by a nuclear war or the nerve gas used post war. As a country girl, her family had lots of preserved food, she knows how to plant seeds and care for livestock. She even has the benefit of a country store down the road stocked with just the type of non-technical gear, machinery, etc. she will need in this new world as it just happened to be a store patronized by a nearby Amish community. So this is not a person who is suffering from starvation or disease like in so many apocalyptic tales, indeed she doesn’t even experience the savage hordes in most of these tales using violent means to survive. So maybe some would argue that based on that she has not had to ‘toughen up’ which then makes her decisions understandable.
However, in my mind this girl had some similarity to the female character in Not a Drop to Drink – both young female survivors on their own, but they take completely different approaches to the arrival of strangers. Initially, Ann shows good instincts when the stranger arrives leaving her home and going to camp out in a nearby cave to observe the stranger and decide what she thinks about him. The stranger, John Loomis also approaches the valley cautiously in his strange suit, a suit that apparently has protected him from the wastelands surrounding the valley. There is a pivotal moment during her observation where her choice not to intervene has serious consequences for John and I respected her for hesitating. The scene doesn’t strongly imply that she hesitates on purpose, there may not have been time to warn John, but it’s vague enough that I interpreted it as the former.
However, whether it’s her loneliness or something else, she eventually emerges from her cave and meets John. John who quickly becomes very ill, based on that moment of hesitation, and Ann assumes the role of caregiver. I can understand not letting the only other person who might be alive besides you die; it’s her actions afterward that don’t make sense.
You see after he starts to recover he shows signs of not being a very good person. If I were Ann, I would make sure I took action before he regains his full strength. Instead this girl who was strong and independent and resourceful enough to survive the first couple years after the apocalypse not only cedes her home over to him, but even after his behavior forces her to retreat to her cave, she brings him food and supplies every day. I was intensely pissed about the way she behaved like an abused woman, continuing to take his abuse, that kind of thing bothers me enough in our non-apocalyptic world, but in the post-apocalyptic world she comes off as pathetic as the guy is too weak to control her, she lets it happen. By the time she finally seems to be catching on he has found the guns, but she still has one too. I would have shot him, but instead she makes the insane decision to leave him in her home in the valley where she is pretty guaranteed to survive to head out into unknown dangers leaving him all her hard work, the animals, the crops, her home, etc. Maybe some would say that’s so brave of her, I just think it’s stupid. I mean I understand her curiosity and desire to find other survivors, but she could shoot him and then still head off. If things are bad, then she would have her valley to come back to and all the things to keep herself alive, by not killing him she can’t do that as he has proven to be untrustworthy. Yeah, this book was definitely frustrating and I am not sure why it got the Newberry award plus the fact that this girl was so passively written by a male author is something I take umbrage at. I just read somewhere that they have made a movie of this one, though they must have greatly changed it, as there are two male characters which completely changes the dynamic of the story…I wash my hands of both book and movie.