Robert C. O’Brien’s last novel takes the form of journal entries written by Ann Burden a year after nuclear war has destroyed her family and much—perhaps all—of the outside world. The poisoned environment keeps Ann within her family’s valley, which enjoys “its own weather” and so has largely escaped the disaster. The story begins when Ann sees campfire smoke and realizes that a stranger is about to arrive; it ends months later as she abandons her homestead and embarks upon her own journey of discovery. Z for Zachariah, then, is at once a Robinson Crusoe story, a rewriting of the Eden myth, and an adventure focusing on generational and gender conflict.
The plot is deceptively simple. Ann, who had intended to become an English teacher, is a humanist who welcomes the idea of companionship. Although she is in some ways a dreamer, imagining marriage and children as one possible outcome of John Loomis’ arrival, she also has the strong practical streak that has enabled her to manage by herself, growing her own food and augmenting it with the stocks culled from the local store. Her understanding of humanity’s darker side prompts her to conceal herself from Loomis until she can ascertain what sort of person he is. As she watches him, he makes the mistake of swimming in Burden Creek, the one contaminated part of the valley, and contracts radiation sickness. Ann nurses him through his severe illness, gradually learning his history—more from his delirious ramblings than from his conscious statements.
Loomis is potentially both an asset and a threat. On the one hand, he is technologically sophisticated, able to advise Ann on returning her father’s tractor to use and to design an electric generator. He owes his own survival to his possession of “the last useful thing anybody ever made,” a...
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- Critical Essays