Z for Zachariah: two people, one valley

z for zachariah

Title: Z For Zachariah
Author:Robert C. O’Brien
Year published: 1974
Genre: Post-apocalyptic (near), young adult/drama.
Threat: Nuclear holocaust, nerve gas.
Two words: Tense adolescence.







Z for Zachariah is often bandied as a children’s post-apocalyptic book, concerning a young lady’s survival after a nuclear holocaust. Indeed, it was partially finished by O’Brien’s daughter, released only after his death, and it’s a text at least previously studied in schools. Something you read and reread and pick apart in class until you find it mind-numbingly banal. But there’s a reason it was worthy studying, and it’s a perfectly mature tale – it’s a great character study, with a purposefully subtle story.

What’s it all about

Z for Zachariah captures the moods of loneliness and isolation that sole-survivor sixteen-year-old Ann must endure after the end. Living in a valley with its own climate, after a nuclear war with nerve gas round every corner, Ann dreams of finding other survivors and repopulating the world. What she discovers, though, is that there are worse things than being alone.

When John Loomis wanders into her life, he brings a world of uncertainty with him. Is he a murderer, does he want to imprison and dominate Ann? What can she do to survive in such tight conditions? Her lonely valley quickly becomes overpopulated with the presence of one other person, and with him comes all sorts of questions about the characters’ age and gender divisions, as well as a discourse on the evils of science.

Why read it?

This terse story has enough atmosphere and ambiguity to really drag you in. It’s a tense ride, as you’d expect from a novel about two people running circles around each other in a dreary little pocket of land. Both main characters have their imperfections, making them very humanly fleshed out. What you ultimately have is a post-apocalyptic novel that answers the question: “What if there were only two people left in the world, and one was a bit immature and the other was a bit of a dick?”


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