Z for Zachariah Reviews

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Individual Reviews

Facing Reality
Reviewed by Michael Lamb 

In Robert C. O'Brien's Z For Zachariah, the author presents a life and death situation. There has been a nuclear explosion and Anne, a girl who was left at home when her family went to investigate the situation, thinks that she is the only person left on Earth. Then she sees a man coming. She's so excited. "I wanted to run down the hill calling, I'm here I'm here, and I wanted to touch his face," she says on page 23. She then thinks better of it and decides to camp out in the woods, watching him.
After a few days, the man takes a bath in a radiation exposed pond and he develops a virus. Anne sees this and her excitement quickly turns to pity. She helps him through the virus and he is quite nice about it. Then, in an extreme turn of events, he has a night mare and reveals an anger that has been lodged inside him. He killed a man named Edward, after Edward had stolen the man's radiation suit. This shows that the man has a very, very short temper. From this point on, Anne becomes more and more suspicious of him. At the same time, the man she now knows as Mr. Loomis is recovering. He also gets bossier.
After he is able to walk better (with a cane), he tries to accomplish his main objective: having a child. One night he comes into Anne's room and pounces on her. Luckily, she has not been able to go to sleep and is prepared for the situation. With a quick move, she swats him and runs out of the house. 
This event changes the rest of their lives forever. His attitude often changes dramatically and instantly throughout the book. However the end of the book is predictable, and the quotes at the end summarize Mr. Loomis' ever-changing attitude and emotions. Throughout the whole book, Anne remains brave and courageous, no matter what the situation. For example, on page 247 she says, "If you shoot me you will really be alone...You have the valley." Later on page 248, she admits, "There was a lot of bitterness in my voice." These two quotes show how she has had it with him, and has made up her mind. Her final decision makes the reader curious about what will happen next. This book was really, really enjoyable. If you like realistic fiction books, then this is the book for you! 


Professional Reviews 1976-1984

Anatomy of Wonder, 1976, p. 328-329 

A post--catastrophe story. Believing she may be the only survivor of a devastating war, Ann Burden is pleased to see a man enter the Burden valley and decides to befriend him. Shocked, when, after all she has done for him, he tries to rape her, Ann is forced to leave the valley, hoping to come across other survivors. Sensitive transformation of trite subject into a tragic study of human behavior in the face of destruction and possible extinction; use of journal to record struggle for understanding, carefully paced narrative, and characterization of protagonist are distinctive. 14-16. 

English Journal, V. 67, December 1978, p. 83 

Robert O'Brien's Z FOR ZACHARIAH, a winner of the Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, takes readers very slowly into a situation of increasing menace. The protagonist, a young woman, believes herself to be the last survivor of a nuclear holocaust until she sees a stranger in a special suit making his way out of the surrounding desolation into the farm valley that is her home and that has miraculously survived contamination. She watches the stranger carefully from a distance, only going to his side when it is evident that he has become ill. The she bends all of her will to insuring his survival; a return to loneliness becomes unthinkable to her. But very gradually it becomes evident that the stranger is compelled to seek control over her: He will starve her out; he will hunt her as a quarry; any evidence of her unwillingness to submit to his rule is perceived as a threat to his survival. A chilling and through-provoking book. (It might make a good film.) O'Brien makes every detail add to his plot's believability just as he did in the might lighter (and delightful) MRS. FRISBEE AND THE RATS OF NIMH (Atheneum). 

English Journal, V. 69, September 1980, p. 87 

Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien proved that young adult novelists could, in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984, use a science fiction format to look at profound social and personal issues. Concentrating on humans being caught in special and revealing situations, Zachariah looked at current social problems and, like Moby Dick and Gulliver's Travels, used the device of isolation, here caused by nuclear war, to explore humanity. O'Brien's novel is a wonderful exploration of youth and middle age, male and female, independence and control. 

Masterworks of Children's Literature, v. 8, 1983, p. 30 

...Two stories will serve as exemplars of twentieth-century changes in childhood and children's books. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908 ends with Anne quoting Browning: "God's in His heaven, all's right with the world." Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zachariah (1974) is the story of another orphan named Ann, a survivor of an atomic war that has wiped out her family. Ann is alone on the family's sheltered farm when another survivor appears, an adult male. A suspicious, tense collaboration begins. The man's behavior becomes more and more threatening until finally he demands sex. On the novel's last page, Ann flees into the radioactive unknown. All is not right with her world. 

[Taken from 'Falling Out', reviews of Z for Zachariah and Brother in the Land] 

...Z for Zachariah, first published in 1975, is a welcome reissue. On the face of it, the plot is implausible: one New England valley surviving destruction unscathed; its sole inhabitant an adolescent girl who knows how to farm and delights in Gray and Jane Austen; the last man (hence the title) arriving in his unique radiation-proof suit. However, Anne relates her own story in a style that is as plain and sure as the moral sense with which she responds to her visitor. The reference to Jane Austen is not coincidental, because it is on the scrupulous honesty of its language that this novel depends for its credibility. And it is credible, so much so that one never questions if for a moment. 
[review of Brother in the Land omitted] 

Times Literary Supplement, April 13th, 1984, p. 414 

...The man who arrives in Anne's valley in Z for Zachariah is a nuclear scientist; single-minded and practical, he regards everything in the valley, including her, as breeding stock. When she resists, he tries to hunt her down, destroying her refuge and even burning her books. He represents the people who have made disaster possible by suppressing conscience and imagination in the service of research. Anne really does reverence life as she rescues a bird or stands spellbound under the apple blossom. Swindells [author of Brother in the Land] might retort that there would be no birds or apple blossom; but by the time Anne finally sets out westwards across the waste land, fantasy has demonstrated--as realism has not--that humanity is worth saving. 

Z for Zachariah

Professional Reviews 1975

Publisher's Weekly, January 20th, 1975, p.77

The late author of this suspenseful novel won a Newbery Award for "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH." Told in diary form by a 16-year-old girl, O'Brien's posthumous story is set in the future, after a nuclear war. Ann Burden believes she is the last person on earth. Her family has left her to look after their farm in a deep valley as they drive off to look for other survivors. They never return. One day, Ann sees the smoke from a campfire and watches as it comes closer. The reader is at first relieved but gradually frightened, like the heroine, as she finds that the man who arrives at her home is no friend but a deadly enemy. The private war between the two is graphically described in a novel which is exciting and thought-provoking. 

Publisher's Weekly, January 27th, 1975, p.278 

This tale of humanity after atomic war brings to mind "Lord of the Flies" and will have similar icy and compulsive effects on readers. Teenager Ann Burden loses her family in "the war." That is, they left their familiar Pennsylvania valley and never returned. Fearful that she is the only remaining survivor, the girl becomes "both excited and afraid" when a man appears wearing a protective suit. His name is Loomis and as a scientist he "won't just accept things." So he quickly makes demands--subtle and otherwise--which force the 16-year-old to choose between flight and servility. What ensues is a grim contest for survival with each, crazed by paranoia, thinking the worst about the other. As in O'Brien's "A Report From Group 17," the suspense is bolstered by just enough scientific data for the layman to handle. 

Library Journal, April 1, 1975, p. 694 

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien verges on science fiction. A young girl, apparently the last survivor of an atomic war, has been miraculously saved from radiation sickness in a hidden valley in the U.S. Her peace is broken by the intrusion of a man, a scientist who suffers from hallucinations or perhaps from memories of some wicked deed in the past. Efforts of joint survival go sour; the man becomes very peculiar indeed and the girl is forced to take direct action. The suspense is beautifully handles, frightening and all too realistic; the ending is inconclusive and all the better for that. 

Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 1975, p. 360 

The setting of Z for Zachariah is a post-nuclear Eden. The holocaust has come and gone, but in one American valley life survives, trees are green, and there is even one fresh spring. The sixteen-year-old inhabitant of this maverick paradise leads a systematic and hard-working life, cultivating the garden valley, tending the livestock and recording the lonely routine in a journal. Loneliness and the frustration of not knowing whether other pockets of life besides the valley esit, are the worst features of this life until a second character arrives--a scientist who owes his survival to a protective suit. It is at this point that the diarist-narrator is revealed to be a young woman. 
The coming of a man to Eden--if not Adam the first man, at least Zachariah the last man--is mainly a source of fear to her at first, but she gradually allows it to become a source of hope, and as she nurses and prepares food for the man--who has after all contracted radiation sickness--she allows herself to indulge in some fairly conventional fantasies about their life together in the valley. Her willing assumption of a female role at this point is interestingly shown and, as the scientist (whom she refers to, rather quaintly, as "Mr. Loomis") recovers, everything seems set for a pastoral. but it becomes a cold pastoral. Mr. Loomis is an unknowable character, obsessed with survival and impatient to cultivate the valley even more intensively. He is ambitious to control it completely, and his desire for power destroys the Eden that might have been, relegating the narrator to a role in it that she rejects. The diary form of the novel effectively conveys the suspense of the imagined situation and the resourcefulness and sensitivity of an Eve who finally refuses to begin the whole story over again. 

The Good and bad by Peter Ackroyd The Spectator, April 12th, 1975, p. 444 [text regarding 'A Proper Place' omitted] 

Z for Zachariah -- a novel which seems to have nothing whatever to do with its title, by the way -- is in a different league [than 'A Proper Place']. It is an extremely good and interesting novel, and if it is good enough for children then it must be good enough for adults too. In fact, it is a great deal more adult than a lot of adult novels I have been reading recently; it is well written, with none of the pandering to the faux-naive, it had a certain imaginative strength, without degenerating into crude fantasy or adventure, and its theme is a resourceful one. Z for Zachariah is set in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, somewhere in America. Ann Burden, sixteen years old, is living alone in a sheltered valley, a cozy spot which has somehow been spared the devastation around it and so becomes the perfect image of innocent childhood. Ann thinks that she is the only person left in the world, but events prove her too optimistic. A stranger wearing a green radiation- proof suit invades the more naturally green world of her hide- away. He is a scientist, and science will turn paradise sour. 
Especially since this particular scientist has a main streak: it transpires that he killed another man to get the suit, and that he is quite willing to kill Ann unless she buckles under, in every sense, and serves his scientific whim. But Ann runs off to the furthest reaches of her little world, tricks the scientist, steals his radiation suit and sets herself into the expanse of the "deadness" looking for another valley. This rather solemn precise cannot catch the pleasing shape and tone of this little fable; it is clearly written, in a prose which can be generally imaginative at the same time as it conveys a wealth of relevant detail. It is the sort of writing to which all novelists should aspire, whether they are writing for children, new adults and even old adults. In fact, at this level of competence, there ceases to be such an entity as the 'children's novel', to be opposed to the 'adult novel', and any writer who starts self- consciously writing for any particular constituency will become grotesquely self-indulgent and rhetorical. There are only good books and bad books. 

The Horn Book, June 1975, p. 276-277 

A posthumous novel by a Newbery Medal winner, finished from his notes--according to the dust jacket--by his wife and his daughter. Postulating an atomic war which devastates most of the United States, if not the world, the author tells of the survival and conflict of two human beings--a girl of sixteen and a mature young man. Ann Burden, left alone in a green valley, a pocket untouched by fallout, keeps a diary telling how she continued to live in her family home, cared for her cows and chickens, and tended her vegetable garden. The sudden appearance of John Loomis, a chemist from Cornell, in a plastic "safe-suit" which had enabled him to travel unscathed fro Ithaca, New York, to Ann's uncontaminated enclave, arouses ambivalent feelings in the girl--suspicion of the stranger and a desire for companionship. Despite her tender care for him during a prolonged illness, once he is well, he shows himself to be insensitive and domineering, and he actually tries to take advantage of her by brute force. Ingenious and resourceful, Ann manages to avoid him and steals the safe-suit. She leaves the valley hoping to find another place with life still in it, triumphant at having rejected and avoided the domination of mere mechanical power. The combination of a survival story and science fiction creates a significant background for a dramatic novel, in which two characters are pitted against one another: Ann with her closeness to earth, her love of nature and of books, her religious feelings; John Loomis with his rational engineering skills and his ruthless will to exploit his surroundings. The title of the book is aptly allusive. Ann tells how she had learned the alphabet in Sunday School "from a picture book called The Bible Letter Book. The first page said 'A is for Adam...the last page of all was 'Z is for Zachariah,' and...for a long time I assumed that Zachariah must be the last man." P.H. 

The Junior Bookshelf, v. 39, June 1975, P. 201-202

It would have been so easy to give a traditional happy ending to this post-atomic-war story of how the last surviving man and girl meet but sixteen-year-old Ann cannot bring herself to accept the responsibility of being a new Eve to the Adam who invades her garden of Eden. 
Told in the form of her diary, this story presents with sympathy and sensitivity her reactions to her own solitary existence in a patch of the countryside spared the desolation of the rest of the continent which has been turned into a sterile and barren wilderness as the result of atomic radiation. She harbors the resources of life and listens fearfully to the faint radio broadcasts that give news of the other surviving groups about the country. Then these too succumb to the violence and despair which follows a complete breakdown of society. Mr. Loomis in his plastic anti-radiation suit might have been the companion she longed for but... 
This is something of a tour de force in imaginative writing. The reader's attention is held throughout and there is are no concessions to sentiment or whimsy. Intelligent children will love it and many parents will insist on finishing it before it goes back to the school library. SBN 575 01890 9 D.A.Y. 

America, December 6, 1975, p. 403-404 

The death of this author was a sad day for children's literature, for his few books had given him a reputation for originality and sensitivity. (His Mr.s Frisby and the Rats of NIMH--also an Atheneum publication, reviewed in America [12/4/71]--won the prestigious Newbery Medal.) Had he lived, he would have ironed out the inconsistencies and discrepancies that may cause some critics to complain of this current novel. Fortunately, he left notes so that his family could complete the final chapters. Ann Burden tells of being left all alone when radiation from a nuclear blast has spread over the land. Her farm home has escaped because of its situation in a deep valley. She tries to ward off despair and overcome her loneliness, while watching warily for unwelcome strangers. And then a young man appears, whom she nurses back to health (he has drunk contaminated water flowing into her property). She is waiting for him to tell something about himself and all the time innocently yet practically planning for their marriage and future together. Then the horrifying secret of Mr. Loomis's sick mind comes to the fore, and Ann becomes a fugitive. How will she escape enslavement to this man, crazed as he has become through a fundamental decision he made months ago to save his life? A mature and through-provoking novel--with an ending that is really a beginning. Surely Mr. O'Brien will inspire someone in his family to write the sequel. Ages 11 and up. 

1997 Boris Masis borisma@mediaone.net

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