Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Life as you really, really don't want to know it

the dead & the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
5Q 3P J/S

You've got to love Bolivian hats. When they belong to Susan Beth Pfeffer, they hold the key to treasures. See, I'm one of the lucky few who have gotten their hands on an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of Susan Beth Pfeffer's next book, the dead & the gone, which will be available in June 2008, all because my email address (and a bunch of other people's) were tucked into that Bolivian hat. It wasn't pulled on the first round. It wasn't pulled on the second round (I pouted!). But it was pulled in the third round. Yay! Once it arrived, I had to wait until the moon was no longer full to start reading it. (If you've already read the companion novel, Life As We Knew It, you'll understand why.) Then I started to read the book. I have two prime reading times in my day: at lunch and just before bed. I soon realized this was not a book to read at either of those times. So I carved out some reading time this past Sunday morning and read the rest of the book straight through. When I finished, I could only say, "Whew!"

I'll say straight out that this is not an easy read. As tough as LAWKI was to read, at least Miranda has her mother with her. She's not in charge of keeping her family together, and she's got someone older to turn to for comfort (or to blame, as she sometimes does). In d&g, Alex has none of that, and because of that, this is an even more chilling read. (Yes, I use that word advisedly.)

Both LAWKI and d&g take place after an asteroid hits the moon, knocking it out of orbit and much closer to the Earth. The result: high tides, tsunamis, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes. Huge chunks of continents are washed away. Communications are disrupted, electricity is spotty at best, and food is scarce and getting scarcer. The sky is so full of ash that the sun's rays can't get through, so the temperatures keep falling and falling.

How do you stay alive in such a situation? Alex is only seventeen years old. His sisters, Brianna and Julie, are only fifteen and twelve. Their father is in Puerto Rico for a funeral, their mother was called in to work at the hospital, and their brother Carlos is with the Marines. At first he thinks he only has to hold things together for a couple of days. But that's before they learn that Puerto Rico was hit hard by the high tides. That's before days go by without hearing from Mami. That's before Carlos calls to tell them that the Marines are being deployed to help with the recovery effort. Soon Alex has to admit to himself that he's in charge, and likely to be so for a long time.

Alex is a scholarship student at St. Vincent dePaul Academy. He's the vice president of his class, president of the debate squad, and he has his eye on the editorship of the school newspaper. In other words, he doesn't shy away from responsibility. But being in charge of his two sisters and running the household is more than he bargained for. Bri isn't so bad. As long as she has her rosary beads and a Bible, she's happy. But Julie is a different story entirely. She's a whiny baby who drives Alex nuts. She fights with him about everything. Most of the time he wants to throttle her. But somehow, these three are going to have to work things out, because they're going to need each other. They don't have anyone else to count on.

At first, their situation doesn't seem so dire. New York City has powerful people who make sure that as many services as possible stay intact. Even the schools stay open. That's a mercy, since they also provide lunch for their students. That's one meal that Alex doesn't have to worry about. But how long can that relative safety last? Not nearly long enough. Brianna gets sick. The food shortages get worse. How do you stay warm when the temperature never gets above ten or twenty degrees? How do you keep your sisters safe when even people become commodities for trade?

What really got to me about this book was how callous Alex, his friends, and Julie have to become. One person's death is another's salvation. As the sense of impending doom got stronger and stronger, it was sometimes hard to keep reading. But what gave me hope was seeing how Alex shoulders his responsibilities and becomes a man. (It speaks volumes about Alex that people he thinks hardly know him reach out to him to offer the kind of help and support that truly means the difference between life and death.) And like Miranda in LAWKI, Julie also grows when the occasion demands it of her. As hard as they may be to deal with, her stubbornness and feistiness prove to be invaluable qualities. This is not a girl who is going to give up.

Faith plays such an important role in this book that it's practically another character. The Catholic church (in particular) is a source of strength, sustenance, and support. It's very fitting that Susan Beth Pfeffer is autographing these books with the words "Never lose faith." When all else fails, having faith in something or Someone may be the one thing that makes the difference between living and becoming one of the dead and the gone.

This is not a comfortable book to read. It's not for those who like cozy reads where everything turns out okay in the end. It's a book for those who want to see people rise up to meet challenges. It's a book for those who know that hard times can bring out the worst in people, but have faith that it can also bring out the best in them. When you finish this book and come up for air (and it will feel just like that), you will not leave this book thoughtlessly behind you. You will live with it, and it will live with you, for days and weeks and months. Like Life as We Knew It before it, the dead & the gone is a life-changing, perspective-altering book.

If you have not already found it, check out Susan Beth Pfeffer's blog. She may write about grim topics (see also The Year Without Michael, but she has a wonderful sense of humor. She has posted both a preview of a truly harrowing chapter of this book and a peek into the mind of an author as she plans her next (this) book.

Here's what I had to say about Life as We Knew It and my booktalk on it.

Edited on 5/2/08 to add a link to my dead & the gone booktalk.

1 comment:

  1. I am so envious. I cannot wait to get my hands on that book. I just re-read Life again this week and stumbled across your post. Maybe I will find a copy at Midwinter, please, please, publishers, think of me...


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