Review: Z for Zachariah

Z for Zachariah
Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had gone out of my way to get a copy of this book and the effort was well worth it. It's an excellently written story, kept simple so the focus is clear. It's about humans destroying the world; survival; holding on to values; hope; and the misuse of power. The details of many of the themes, such as Loomis' possessiveness, are cleverly layered in to the narrative. It reinforces something I've suspected for years: a well-written young adult novel can be just as engaging and tense as something which is more gratuitous, and in many cases the restraint shown actually enhances the story.

I have read some other reviews, and those who are dissatisfied with the novel often mention that they wish Ann had shot Loomis. She had a number of opportunities, and if she had taken them she could have saved Faro. I think this is perhaps more of an issue for a modern audience. Ann is true to her character and that is commendable, though I also found myself thinking "At least shoot him in the arm or leg, disarm him, take back what is yours." Two other aspects of the novel struck me as oversights. Why didn't Loomis hide the cart, lock it away? It was so important to him it seems strange that he left it in the open even after the conflict started. The other issue was with the padlocked store. Surely Ann could have just smashed the windows, then taken and hidden loads of useful supplies?

I won't let those caveats reduce the mark though. The novel tells an important story and grips the reader. I stayed up too late last night finishing it off, racing through the last forty pages. It's like a more innocent version of McCarthy's 'The Road', and with better punctuation.

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Sam Oakley said...

I remember watching a TV version of this with Antony Andrews (of Brideshead Revisited fame) when I was a teenager. Back in the days when I lived in constant fear of a nuclear holocaust...

Karl said...

Ooh, I'll have to look out for that! I love reading a book then watching a TV version, and some of the nuclear stuff from the 70s, 80s and early 90s is horrific e.g. Threads (1984)

Karl said...

Just saw that the Z for Zachariah BBC version was 1984 too!

Alyson said...

I've done a review on Goodreads too. I first read this in 1998 - it was terrifying. Especially because of its simplicity. And the dog. Re-reading it brings up all the same emotions. I hope we never have to be in the situation she was in.

Karl said...

Poor Faro. Reminds me of the dog in 'I Am Legend' (novel, not film).

Steve said...

I didn't think much of the story until I realized that it has an unreliable narrator, who is irrational and paranoid for most of the story. As a result, the story is rich with irony. It is strange that so many readers accept Ann's narrative without question even though the facts of the text clearly show her selfishness, bias, faulty reasoning, and inconsistent claims about Loomis. At the same time, her ideas about Loomis when she is fearful just don't fit the stated facts about his words and behavior.

For example, Ann is the one who is possessive, NOT Loomis. When she first hides from him, she makes annoyed, petty comments about him using HER firewood, HER chicken, HER dishes, and HER clothes (from the store)--assuming that even store supplies are her property. And she does this while letting this stranger swim in a dead stream rather than risking her safety to warn him! Then after he recovers from radiation sickness and expresses sensible concern about planting crops in time to have enough food for winter, Ann worries that he is becoming possessive of the farm and the valley! Why? Does he claim authority over everything? No. He is simply concerned about their joint survival in a valley they must share. But Ann thinks of the farm and the valley as ENTIRELY HERS (143)! In her view, the last habitable valley (which Loomis says they should think of as "the world") is all HER property, so it's difficult for her to get used to the idea "he considered the valley as much his as mine" (143). How dare he assume any right to share the last place people can live! It is not Loomis who is possessive and obsessed about control. Later, after the handholding incident, Ann writes of feeling sure Loomis is trying to control her, "just as he had, in his way, controlled the planting..." (162). But he did NOT try to "control" the planting! Rather, Ann assumed SHE should control it completely, and she resented him just implying that he had any shared interest in the valley!

When she describes here the ways that she thinks Loomis tried to control things, every example she lists is completely false and biased. In addition to trying to control the planting, she imagines he tried to control "the use of the gasoline, the tractor,...[her] going to church....the suit, and, in the end, Edward" (162).

All of these claims need to be examined critically. How did he control the use of gas and the tractor? It was only because he helped her get gas with a manual pump that she is able to use the tractor at all! He never tried to "control" her but just said once it was a waste of gas to use the tractor to get supplies. He thought she shouldn't do that even so she wouldn't have to leave him alone for long during his sickness.

Steve said...

Ann also misunderstands Loomis's attitude about her churchgoing. On one occasion, he got annoyed that she went to church instead of planting corn. Note that he was NOT annoyed by the fact she went to church. What annoyed him was simply that she claimed she couldn't plant the corn because she was afraid to leave his side, but then she admitted leaving him to go to church 3 times (142). Ann appears quite foolish here, trying to justify her neglect to plant crops by claiming concern for Loomis even though she could leave him to pray in church--mainly to make herself feel better. Yet Ann mistakenly thinks Loomis is critical of her churchgoing: "He sounded annoyed and did not understand why I had gone to church" (143). Wrong, Ann! He didn't understand why she hadn't planted corn!

Later, Loomis suggests good-naturedly that Ann pray for a bull (so that the few cattle they have can survive as a species), which also shows he is not critical of prayer in general.

Is he tyrannically controlling of the suit? No. When Ann claims this, she is referring to the time he refused to let her borrow the safesuit to get library books--an idea that was ridiculously foolish and Ann afterwards admitted was "not too practical" (151). It is entirely understandable that Loomis would think it too dangerous for her to use the suit yet and also an unnecessary risk.

Steve said...

Finally, accusing Loomis of "controlling" Edward is extremely unfair as well as hypocritical. His nightmares show clearly how scared Loomis was, and it is a fact that Edward's attempt to steal the safesuit directly threatened Loomis's ability to survive. Recognizing this, Ann considers, "In a way, it was self-defense" (126). In his nightmares, Loomis also said the suit was the only way to contact and help other survivors, showing a concern for "human survival" that Ann reasons could have also justified his actions (127). Moreover, as Loomis told Ann after they first met, he spent over 6 months looking for other survivors around Ithaca before heading west and finding Burden Valley (57, 63). Clearly, he really WAS concerned about using the suit to help others, and he did not just kill Edward for selfish reasons. YET, after reasoning that he may have acted in self-defense and cared about helping others, Ann then wonders, "But suppose...Mr. Loomis was trying to keep the suit for himself?" And she assumes that his final use of the suit to strike out on his own could suggest selfish motives in killing Edward. WHY? This makes no sense! She forgets he spent half a year searching for other survivors and assumes that using the suit at all for his own benefit suggests he killed ONLY for selfish reasons?! Meanwhile, while presuming to judge Loomis's morality for killing to save his own life, Ann completely forgets SHE WAS WILLING TO LET HIM DIE IN A DEAD STREAM to ensure her own safety! What a hypocrite! She has no right to judge him at all.

Steve said...

Further, consider her idiotic reasoning when she writes that judging wrongness of Loomis's actions "depends on knowing what Edward was like" and "it also depends on knowing what Mr. Loomis was like" (127-28). Wrong! In cases of killing, an offender is NOT judged based on either his own character or the character of the victim!

It is an example of Ann's foolishness that she thinks killing a person can be justified if the victim is believed to have been selfish. Whether Edward was selfish or not in taking the suit (and he most likely was!) cannot justify anyone's killing him. Selfishness is not a crime deserving a death sentence. Ann's thinking is similarly simple-minded and self-righteous when she first learns that Loomis killed Edward, and she thinks, "Even though he may be a murderer, I do not want him to die" (120). This sort of reasoning should set off alarm bells in readers! She presumes that it COULD be reasonable for her to wish Loomis to die because he MIGHT be a murderer! She does not say, "Even if he IS a murderer." It is this sort of selfish reasoning that led her to justify letting Loomis bathe in a dead stream because he MIGHT be a crazy killer who would enslave her!

Moreover, the wrongness of Loomis's actions in killing Edward also cannot be judged based on knowing his character in general. If it were so, then courts would try killers by just gathering witnesses to testify about the offender's good or bad character. Then whatever people thought about his character would determine if he acted wrongly and deserved punishment. Since Ann is the only one present to judge Loomis's character, she assumes the right to arbitrarily determine the morality of his actions based on HER judgment about his character. That's fair! Nevermind about the facts of the circumstances or giving the defendant a chance to speak in his own defense!

Ann's ideas of justice are medieval. In civilized countries, circumstances and an offender's intentions are what mainly determine if killing is judged as manslaughter or murder. The circumstances revealed through Loomis's nightmares show plainly that Loomis acted out of extreme fear of a threat to his own life and did NOT kill "with malice aforethought." Therefore, it was self-defense, NOT murder. Under the circumstances, he had good reason to believe the safesuit being stolen was his only means of survival. Further, a civilized court of law would allow Loomis to hear accusations against him and speak in his own defense before passing judgment. But Ann never allows Loomis this chance.

These are just some of the instances of Ann's self-serving, irrational and unjust thinking. In practically every case, I think her thinking is similarly biased and unreasonable.

Karl said...

Thanks for all the comments Steve, it's obviously a novel you've had a good think about. I appreciate fiction (novels or films) where there can be more than one interpretation, it definitely gives you more to consider afterwards.

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