Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

Back in school, we read (or were forced to read) various novels as part of English class. Mostly, I found them incredibly boring, and a drudgery. How Many Miles to Babylon, I Am David, Of Mice and Men, etc. – books that were, for the most part, too sophisticated and intellectual for a boy in his early to mid teens. These book choices no doubt contributed to me being unable to view reading as a pleasurable past-time. That all changed when Z for Zachariah became the class novel. I credit this book as the catalyst that got me into reading, and I’ve never looked back.

Ann Burden lives in a secluded valley with her family, when a nuclear war happens. Her mother and father head out in the car, to see what’s going on in the neighbouring town, and they never return. Beyond the valley, all is dead and lifeless. For some reason, the valley is untouched by the nuclear fallout – not a miracle, but a meteorological mystery. Ann now lives alone, thinking that she might be the last person in the world – except for the farm animals. Then one day, months later, she sees a column of smoke in the distance – a camp-fire. Someone is coming. Who is this mysterious traveller? How can he move about unaffected? And will he be friend or foe?

What a terrific set-up for a rivetting story. This is the third time I’ve read Z for Zachariah. It’s still great. Athough marketed as a children’s novel, it’s a very grown-up story that doesn’t pull its punches. At times, I wanted to shake Ann, for her excessive fear and her inability to be ruthless when something needed doing. But this only served to illustrate how much the author really drew me into the story, and how well he was able to portray the predicament of a sensible, moral girl whose whole world had been turned upside down.

Interestingly, I learned that the author died while writing the final chapter of this novel. His family finished it for him, and the book was published posthumously. Highly recommended.