Review – Z for Zacharia by Robert C O’Brien

Z_FOR_ZACHARIAH_400PX “Beyond Claypole Ridge there is Ogdentown, about ten miles farther.  But there is no one left alive in Ogdentown.

I know this because after the war ended, and all the telephones went dead, my father, my brother Joseph and Cousin David went in the truck to find out what was happening, and the first place they went was Ogdentown.  They went early in the morning:  Joseph and David were really excited, but Father looked serious.

When they came back, it was dark.  Mother had been worrying – they took so long – so we were glad to see the truck lights finally coming over Burden Hill, two miles away.  They looked like beacons.  […]  It came up to the house, and they got out; the boys weren’t excited anymore.  They looked scared, and my father looked sick.  My mother looked up at him as he climbed down.

“What did you find?”
He said:  “Bodies.  Just dead bodies.  They’re all dead.”

We went inside the house where the lamps were lit, the two boys following not saying anything.  My father sat down.  “Terrible,” he said, and again, “terrible, terrible.  We drove around looking.  We blew the horn.  Then we went to the church and rang the bell.  You can hear it five miles away.  We waited two hours, but nobody came.  I went in a couple of houses – the Johnsons’, the Peters’- they were all in there, all dead.  There were dead birds all over the streets.”

My brother Joseph began to cry.  He was fourteen.  I think I had not heard him cry for six years.”

Sixteen-year-old Ann Burden believes that she is the last human left on Earth, living a somewhat idyllic life of solitude after an ill-explained war has left everyone dead from radiation poisoning, at least everyone in the United States.  For some reason, the valley that Ann lives in is mysteriously protected from the nuclear fall-out.  She lives day to day with her dog and keeps a diary of the events, Z for Zacharia is that diary.

Her quiet life is completely rattled, however, when, you guessed it, someone else shows up on the block.  John Loomis, a scientist, survived thanks to his invention – a radiation proff suit – of which there is only one in existence.

Overall, this is a moderately successful YA book.  I would say that I enjoyed reading it, but I would also say that there are some pretty important faults that I couldn’t look over.

First, we are never given much decent explanation as to why Ann’s parents decide to leave her.  Her whole family goes into town, thus succumbing to radiation poisoning.  No mother or father, at least I don’t think, would leave their daughter to “man the fort” so to speak, after a nuclear war.  I just didn’t buy it.

Second, it seems implausible and unbelievable that Ann’s valley is so situated geographically that it is immune to nuclear fall-out.  One river in the valley is contaminated, and maybe I don’t know enough about the effects of nuclear war, but I just don’t think there is  line that can separate one part of land from the other, like a line that keeps out nuclear fall-out.  If you know more about this, please, explain to me how this is possible.

Third, it does not think its readers are as smart as they are.  I really felt like Ann’s voice was not wholly realized.  She is not exactly like a sixteen year old girl.  I realize that she has matured, that she is forced to grow up because of her situation, but other than a few musings, there is no loss of her innocence.  The reader does not get to witness this transition, and it’s a shame, because I feel that is really where our story is.

I think it is entirely possible that I was looking for a different novel.  Perhaps the problem is not in the structure of the story, but rather the structure of the narrative.  For the story told, very much an action story that relied more on events than on emotions, a diary was not the best choice.  As readers, we never develop the intimite relationship with Ann that a diary should afford, instead it seems that the story is told as a diary simply because writing a diary is something that a lonely 16-year-old girl would do. Had the narrative been structured differently, perhaps a regular first-person narrative, I would have found the story more believable and more relatable.

All that being said, like I mentioned, I enjoyed reading this story.  It has some faults, but it is an entertaining “apocalyptic” novel meant for the younger crowd.



8 thoughts on “Review – Z for Zacharia by Robert C O’Brien

  1. I read this as a teenager and remember it as being amazing. I still sometimes quote it as being one of my favourite books as it had such an effect on me.

    I have often wondered what I’d think of it if I read it again now, and your review has probably summed up what I’d think. This is why I wont re-read it, but will keep my great thoughts about it untainted.

    I think this must be a wonderful YA novel, but one that doesn’t make a good adult read.

    Thank you for reminding me about this one.

  2. This is a compelling story. I do believe Ann and her innocence. She has lived in a valley in a place not unlike where I am from, West Virginia. Life is a bit less hectic there, young teenagers are not as tainted by things like MySpace, Xbox, etc. Ann reflects how teenagers would think and act if raised in a rural place with the influence of an Amish culture. Also, the valley is not unlike the Paradise in the classic “Lost Horizons” high in the harsh Himalayas. The valley is a metaphor for survival and has much deeper meaning than just, is it techinically possible. The first commenter completely missed the point on this. It is a great book for young teens and adults. My son is reading the book and I am reading my own copy. A great story, it holds suspense and the promise of hope.
    Don’t let negative comments deter you from reading this story. It is fiction, after all, not non-fiction. Ann acts like a young teen would around the older man, she treats him like he is an authority and to be respected, something teens in less tainted places still do. I found her totally credible. Great read, recommend this book to everyone!!

    1. I appreciate your comment, but we just have a difference of opinion. Frankly, I grew up half in Amish country and half at the beach, and the kids there simply are NOT any more or less innocent as kids elsewhere. Kids are kids, there are more sheltered and more aware kids no matter where you are. I appreciate your analysis of the story, but I stand by what I said.

  3. For some bizarre reason the book came into my head a week ago – it was one our teacher read us before our ‘O’ level English exams in England back in the early 80s. I remember it had a profound effect on me. I had totally forgotten it, but now I feel a compulsive urge to read it again; I don’t know why. So I’ve just ordered a copy. Not sure if it’s a good idea – like some of the comments above, I may feel it’s a bit of a let-down. Still! Who knows.

  4. I am currently reading this book as required in my 8th grade english class. i was also assigned a project plot line thingy to do and i am sooooo lost in this book!
    why dose she not want to meet john?
    what happend to her family?
    why is she all by herself?
    dose she want to have a family with john?
    im confused so please HELP! 🙂

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