The novel takes its title from a religious alphabet book that Ann had as a child, which began “A is for Adam” and concluded “Z is for Zachariah”—a progression that led the toddler to deduce that if Adam was the first man, then Zachariah must be the last. This point emphasizes that O’Brien’s narrative will be an inverted Creation story, although it is less about the creation of a new world than it is about the hoped-for reclamation and reformation of an old one. O’Brien uses such reversals throughout the story, from Loomis’ hypothesis that the valley has been preserved through “some kind of an inversion” to the author’s use of the younger character to embody the values of tradition (literature, the pioneer spirit, and religion) and the older character those of inventiveness, change, and iconoclasm, as Loomis scoffs at Ann’s churchgoing and burns her copy of Treasured Short Stories of England and America. Similarly, O’Brien goes against stereotypes in associating his female character with physical labor in the out-of-doors, while the male character stands for weakness and confinement to domestic spaces. Gender, indeed, is something that Ann has relinquished, as she has learned to enjoy the “male” tasks that she once disliked and to feel comfortable in the male clothing that circumstances have forced upon her, so that Loomis’ attempt to coerce her into the female sexual role is doubly a violation.
Yet, Ann is less an inversion of femininity than a new version of it—and, perhaps, of humanity overall. If she is the culture-bearer, preserving...
(The entire section is 651 words.)
Although Robert C. O’Brien’s three novels for young readers are all suspicious of science and of power imbalances, they are startlingly different in conception. The Silver Crown (1968), which is set in the present but looks backward to the Dark Ages, meditates on technology’s dangerous and “magical” ability to force even good people to conform to its destructive demands; the more lighthearted Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) uses talking animals to ask its audience to ponder whether society should properly be parasitic or symbiotic.
Z for Zachariah has the simplest plot of the three works but arguably demands the greatest amount of thought from readers because of its heightened recognition of moral ambiguity—as Ann recognizes, she and Loomis have much in common. The Silver Crown derives its excitement from the dramatic struggle between good and evil, suggesting that evil is artificial and eradicable. Z for Zachariah is both less melodramatic and less naïve. In its use of archetype and the connection that it makes between plot and underlying message, this novel is allied to such works of science fiction for young adults as Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars (1970), another artistically successful narrative that links the maturing process of an individual with that of a culture. Historically, juvenile science fiction has often been condemned as pulp, criticized for using cardboard characters and preferring action to thought. Novels such as O’Brien’s are reminders that these complaints are sometimes unjust.