I hope I’m not being too sexist here, when I review Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. The books seems to be a feminine take on the end of the world. But I have read many end of the world stories, and I think they’ve always have been written by males. Books about the collapse of civilization are a special favorite of mine since I was a little kid, and now they are becoming very popular with young adult readers. It’s rather fascinating to read a woman’s take on the genre.
First off, this isn’t going to be a regular review, because it’s going to contain spoilers to all the essential events in the story. Let’s just say that I found Life as We Knew It to be extremely readable and likeable, but I want to dissect it because it was such a different view on the end of the world as I know it. It was a rather nice and civilized view, and I’m essentially asking if that’s because the author was female. Of course, this is a YA novel, so maybe it was pulling its punches, but then I’m not sure if YA readers want to be handled with care. Kids loved The Hunger Games, which made them sort of like Romans at the Coliseum.
Surviving a brutal world at the collapse of civilization is the core appeal of reading end of the world stories. Like I said, I really liked Life as We Knew It, and felt it was a compelling read. I’d recommend it to any adult or kid who loves to read YA novels, but I’m now going to pick it apart for psychological reasons. If you haven’t read it, don’t read beyond the cover photo.
When civilization collapses all rules disappear. Survival is the number one driving force. And in most post-apocalyptic novels of this type, the key conflict is kill or be killed. Susan Beth Pfeffer completely side steps this issue. An asteroid hits the moon and brings about catastrophic changes to life on Earth. The story takes place from May to March, beginning slowly, but ending with a brutal “nuclear winter” like winter. The story is told by Miranda, a sixteen-year-old girl in diary form, and is about how her single mother Laura keeps Miranda, and brothers Matt and Jon alive when civilization falls apart.
One reason I love these after-the-collapse stories is they present a perfect fantasy puzzle of “What would you do?” in the same situation. If you were sitting in your suburban home watching the news and knew that civilization was about to come to an end, what would you do? Laura withdraws a lot of cash out of her bank and pulls her kids out of school. She also gets an old lady neighbor and they all go on a frantic shopping spree for food and necessities. Now this is practical, but Pfeffer presents this chaotic moment as too civilized. Sure it’s a madhouse at the grocery story, but not crazier than Walmart at 4am on Black Friday. And it’s a bargain, all shopping baskets can be stuffed with as much stuff as possible for just $100, so each person gets several loads. That’s just unbelievable.
And here’s the thing, that one shopping spree lasts the family eleven months. Even though they live near a pond, there is no mention of fishing. Even though they live in the outskirts of town with lots of trees to cut down for firewood, there’s no mention of hunting squirrel, rabbits, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, frogs, turtles, dogs, cats, birds or anything else. Everyone begins to starve, but they take dead bodies to the hospital. If these people are that hungry and think they won’t make it through the winter, why aren’t they eating the dead? I’ve been a vegetarian since 16, but hey, every real life story I’ve ever read about starving finally comes down to cannibalism. By the time Mrs. Nesbitt died, Miranda and family should have been hungry enough to eat her.
Pfeffer evidently doesn’t believe in killing animals for food even though the family eats a lot of canned meats. It’s strange that the boys chop wood seven days a week to get ready for winter, but never go hunting and fishing. Nor do they go scavenging. In Pfeffer’s world, the rule is people leave each other alone, and only plunder each other’s houses if the family dies or moves south. But Matt, Jon and Miranda never routine scavenge homes on their own. That’s way too civilized. And dare I say too girly? Life as We Knew It is way too civilized view of no civilization. America is full of gun owners, but we don’t see guns in this story except for a couple tiny mentions.
Liberals often ask NRA members why do they need assault rifles. Well, they are for the end of the world. When civilization goes down the toilet, it’s a dog eat dog wild west world. In Susan Beth Pfeffer’s apocalypse it’s a please-and-thank-you end of the world scenario. Only nature kills, not people.
Like I said, Life as We Knew It is a gripping, well told story, even though it doesn’t fit the standard after-the-collapse model. Is that because Pfeffer is a woman and expects the end of the world to be different? Or does she believe young adult readers shouldn’t imagine such a brutal existence, even though they’ve been assigned Lord of the Flies for decades? Or is her novel just a cozy story of how she thinks things should be if civilization should collapse? Sort of a politically correct Mad Max?
Even the ending was too nice. Miranda has decided to leave home to die in hopes of leaving more food for her younger brother who everyone thinks should be the ultimate survivor. But at the last minute she finds a flyer from a newly set up government office that’s giving away food. They are saved. Civilization hasn’t completely collapse and its making a comeback. Survival has merely been one of waiting, hoarding food, and rationing. No one in this story fights to survive. They struggle, they endure, they work hard, but they don’t fight.
The thing I’ve always loved about after the collapse stories is the pioneering spirit of starting over. Of reinventing old ways of doing things to replace modern technology. There is no invention in this story, no learning to make bows and arrows, no Gilligan’s Island professor inventing new tools out of old parts, no reading old books to figure out how to make animal traps and cure hides. Most of all, these people don’t scavenge, steal or kill. Nor are they preyed upon by armed hoards of starving survivalists. Every family holes up in their own house and waits. Ultimately, waits for the government to help them.
Hey, I’m about as liberal as they come, but I know better than wait on the government after civilization goes down the drain. I don’t know if the collapse of civilization would be as brutal as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but it should be as brutal as Survivors (BBC 1975-1977), a favorite TV show of mine. My all-time favorite after the collapse story is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. That’s because it’s about the intellectual rebuilding of society. Stewart shows that once civilization collapses it will be very hard to rebuild. I’m afraid Susan Beth Pfeffer doesn’t really understand what a collapse of modern society means, or she didn’t want her story to be all about realistic brutality. I have to give Suzanne Collins a lot of credit for having her sixteen-year-old Katniss facing realistic brutality in a honestly violent way.
Even if Pfeffer didn’t want Miranda and her family shooting guns at other people, she should have at least included a local militia protecting the neighborhoods and setting up the power behind the rule that you don’t loot your neighbor’s house unless they are dead or moved. Pfeffer makes no suggestion that strangers would organize or work together. Family is the only bond. That’s odd, don’t you think? After every natural disaster I see endless news stories about strangers helping each other.
Also I was disappointed that Miranda and her family totally depended on the phone, radio, TV and the Internet for their news, and once those systems died, they just did without. Why didn’t they communicate more with other people? Why wasn’t their some kind of gossip grapevine, or bulleting board news system? Pfeffer’s characters aren’t inventors, but I think necessity really is the mother of invention, and they faced a whole lot of necessity.
I believe we all write end-of-the-world stories that reflect our own psychological make-up. And this could be a little like taking your clothes off in public.
I’m calling Life as We Knew It a feminine apocalypse because her nonviolent view of the end of the world is so very different from all similar books I’ve read which have always been written by males. Is that sexist or political incorrect of me? Who says end of the world stories have to play by masculine rules? But why didn’t Miranda try to catch fish at the pond, or the boys try to kill squirrels when they were chopping wood?
Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe most women would be fighters in real life, and probably if they wrote fictional accounts of surviving, their characters would be fighters too. I’m just wondering why Pfeffer wrote such a polite story about a brutal time? Is this her naked honesty of how she thinks people would behave?
In this story food only comes from the grocery store, and help only comes from the government, and desperate people never resort to using guns. Where’s the 4th of July spirit? I grew up watching westerns, so I guess I might be indoctrinated differently.
Maybe I shouldn’t write such a story as this, because my naked views might be loathsome. But now that I’m old, and in declining health, it would be much different from one I would have written at 25. I should write an after-the-collapse story about a gimpy old fart trying to survive the end of the world. It would have a hilarious scene of a life long vegetarian killing and eating a squirrel.
JWH – 7/4/13