Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer
This book is a mixed bag. Life As We Knew It deals with the aftermath of a horrific astronomical event, in which a meteor has crashed into the moon, causing its orbit to change drastically. Far-fetched? Yeah, sure, but the science isn’t really the point. (As a warning, though, those of you who are inclined in that direction will find plenty to complain about—there are all kinds of implausibilities in here.)
The novel focuses on a teenage girl, Miranda Evans, and her mother and two brothers. Life As We Knew It is really a survival tale, and so the novel’s target audience – high school students – is likely to think of a lot of things the Evans family should have done. (How is it that no one ever went hunting, or scavenging through dead neighbors’ houses?) That occasionally gets frustrating, but then again, I’m not sure how level-headed I’d be after the apocalypse. And much like the crazy science, the family’s survival skills (or lack thereof) aren’t what makes this book compelling.
And besides, those are pretty minor complaints. Most of the people who really have a beef with this book object to its perceived “anti-Christian” and “anti-conservative” bias, which frankly is difficult to deny. There are a lot of pointed comments about the president running off to Texas with a stockpile of food, and the religious characters in the book are insane. Then again, that rather dim view of humanity is in keeping with the rest of the book – it’s not as though the Christians are singled out.
See, this book posits, on some level, that humans are pretty nasty creatures. When faced with a global catastrophe, it tells us, people will become terribly selfish. They’ll kill their neighbors, even their families. They’ll kidnap and pillage and murder. They’ll avoid at all costs doing anything generous, and serve only their own self-interest. This is exemplified by the Evans family: when Miranda tells the boy she likes about some available canned food, for example, her mother goes berserk. There’s a mantra here – family first, family first, family first – that is echoed by pretty much every character we meet, and it makes this book a little hard to swallow. It bears pointing out, of course, that in past global catastrophes, there have been an awful lot of incredible, heroic, generous humans, and in Pfeffer’s apocalypse there are absolutely none. Even Miranda’s mother, who is supposed to be more-or-less a good person and a good parent, eventually asks Miranda to make an enormous and kind of horrific sacrifice.
In the end, it’s Miranda who makes this book worth reading. This is told in the first person, in diary format, which more than anything highlights the surprising monotony of a post-apocalyptic Pennsylvania. She spends most of her time chopping wood, re-reading the same books, and fighting with her family. Towards the end of the novel, she devotes all of her time to keeping herself and her family alive, but until that point, she mostly just seems bored, and her diary very effectively blends Miranda’s mundane experiences with the harsh realities of her new world. Her very human, very teenage reactions to a devastating event are what make this novel plausible enough, and engaging enough, to finish: whatever else, you want to know that so resilient a girl can make it, even through the end of the world.
In short: Dark and thoughtful, Life As We Knew It relies on the spunk of its protagonist to keep the reader from getting too bored or depressed to finish the book. Luckily, Miranda is up to the challenge.
Read it if you like: Z is for Zachariah, post-apocalyptic fic