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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.

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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 through her piano playing and poetry reading the intellectual equivalent of the seed crops that she tends in order to enable future agricultural bounty, she simultaneously symbolizes the rejection of certain mistakes that her culture has made in the past. Loomis’ lack of human connection (he seems indifferent to his childhood and never founded a family of his own), his calculating and haunted personality, his obsession with achieving absolute mastery over his surroundings—all hint at the failings that have caused this society to destroy itself. Ann’s very different mode of intelligence and competence suggests that when she finds her future home—and the narrative gives readers reason to hope that she will indeed discover a new place to live—she will teach the rising generation another way to live, without abandoning the independence and capacity for hard work that she and Loomis have in common.

The novel is...

(The entire section contains 651 words.)

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Critical Context