Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Life as I Never Want to Know It

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
5Q J/S

This book made me feel as tense and claustraphobic as What Happened to Cass McBride, even though it's an entirely different kind of book. When I read books like Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl or read articles about people who have lived through horrific experiences like Rwanda, Sarajevo, or the Bataan Death March, I always wonder to myself how they made it through. I marvel when they turn their horrible experience into something positive instead of allowing themselves to become bitter and angry. "Could I do that?" I wonder. "Would I have survived, or would I have just given up?" I'd like to think that I'd survive with my spirit intact, but I don't know if I'm that strong. I hope I never have to find out, but I hope if the situation arises, I discover that I am. In Life as We Knew It, Miranda and her family discover that they are.

Sometimes the biggest events start out as nothing all that special. This is one of those times. Sure, people are talking about the asteroid that's about to hit the moon. This one is a little out of the ordinary because it's bigger than most asteroids that hit the moon. In fact, it's big enough that it can be seen with binoculars, not just a telescope. So it's a big enough event that Miranda's teachers are all giving moon/asteroid-related assignments, but not so big that anyone is worried. But they should have been. Because it turns out that the asteroid is not only bigger than scientists expected, it hits with much more force than expected. It hits with such force that the moon is knocked out of its orbit. It's pushed much closer to Earth than it was before.

So? Is that really significant? You bet it is. In fact, it's catastrophic. For one thing, the moon affects the tides. The first noticeable effect of the collision are the tsunamis that hit the coasts. By the next morning, there are reports of massive flooding all over the eastern seaboard and tidal waves of twenty feet or higher hitting cities as far inland as New York City. The Statue of Liberty is washed out to sea, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard are completely submerged, the barrier islands off the Carolina coast are gone, and so is the entire state of Rhode Island. Hawaii and parts of Alaska are gone, too. And it's not just a United States problem. Similar devastation is happening around the world.

Nobody knows at first just how bad it's going to get. But Miranda's mother is smart enough to suspect that it's going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. IF it gets better. She takes Miranda and her younger brother out of school, and the three of them and a neighbor head to the stores. They fill up cart after cart with canned and boxed foods, cat food and kitty litter, toilet paper, and anything and everything they think they could possibly use. Miranda's mother even buys seeds and cuttings, so they can plant their own vegetables. Because they have no way of knowing how long the situation will last or how bad it will get, everything has to be rationed, including their water and heating oil.

How bad does it get? After the tidal waves come the earthquakes. After the earthquakes come the volcanoes. Volcanoes that have been dormant for thousands of years or which are so far underground that they once posed no danger are erupting now. So much ash is thrown into the air that the sun is completely blocked. The first hard frost comes in August. By September, it's not unusual for the temperature during the day to reach a high of 23 degrees. By October, it's below zero. They can forget about growing plants for food. Communication networks break down. It's next to impossible to make or receive phone calls. Mail is disrupted. Electricity is available only an hour or two a day. Soon, it's on for only minutes a day. And then it's not on at all. With no mail, no phone, no television, and no internet, there's no way to get any news at all. They are completely isolated.

Miranda's journal begins on May 7 and ends on March 20. The early entries are typical of a teenage girl worried about her grades, her friends, fights with her mother, worries about her father and pregnant stepmother, and her fan-crush on a local Olympic-caliber skater. But as the crisis deepens, so do the journal entries, and the reader can't help but admire Miranda as she describes their struggles to survive. Though sometimes tempted to give up, she never does. It's inspiring. This is not a novel that's wrapped up neatly at the end. The situation is still dire. But we are left with an image of Miranda standing strong with a new sense of hope that better days are coming.

I highly recommend this book. It is not a comfort read. It will keep you on edge. You'll feel the cold and the hunger. But it will make you appreciate what you've got, both the material things and the people in your life you love. And maybe, like me, it'll make you think about what it takes to survive the tough times and come out stronger for it in the end.

By the way, this is the kind of book I wish would win the Printz. It is possible to have literary quality AND be something teens will actually read.

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