Despite dying before his novel was published, Robert C. O’Brien received posthumous praise and awards for his novel Z for Zachariah
. This fascinating piece of fiction is set in a post nuclear landscape. A nuclear war has destroyed everything except for a young teenage girl living on her family’s farm. The girl, Ann Burden, was spared from the nuclear radiation thanks to the farm’s self-contained weather system. Her parents were lost, ironically
on a search expedition, leaving only Ann and her dog Faro to tend the farm. She has survived for a year, growing crops, living off the land, and staying safely quarantined within it as she believes she is the last person on earth. The meaning of the title Z for Zachariah
is revealed in a little anecdote about her past, where her children’s book “A for Adam” signified the first man. Naturally, she believes that Zachariah must be the last.
After about a year alone on the farm, Ann notices a strange man wearing what looks like a hazmat suit, enter the premises. Afraid, she hides in a nearby cave and monitors his actions. He searches the area and washes himself in the river, which is affected by radiation. Ann does not warn the man as she fears he might be dangerous – but after the man becomes sick, she is faced with the reality that she will be alone forever and so attempts to help him. She discovers that the man is John Loomis, a chemist, and the suit he is wearing is supposed to be a radiation “safe-suit” that he created to survive the nuclear war. But as he grows sicker, he begins to hallucinate about a terrible thing he’d done – fighting over the safe-suit with his friend Edward, who was in search of his family. Loomis shot Edward dead. Ann hears Loomis having his flashbacks but keeps the secret to herself. As she cares for Loomis, she begins to fantasize about marrying him.
After a short while, Loomis is recovering well, however, his demeanor is growing saltier. He begins to criticize and chastise Ann for the way she runs the farm and prohibits her from touching his safe-suit. He eventually takes on a kill or be killed attitude, sneaking into her room at night to kidnap her. However, Ann awakes and thwarts his plan, rushing quickly to hide in the cave once more.
She lets him cool off for a couple of days, and then approaches him with a fair plan for both to live on the farm together – they will live apart, but split all the produce and the work down the middle. Loomis begrudgingly accepts, but slowly begins inconveniencing her. He limits her access to farm equipment and supplies, but when she decides to confront him about it, he shoots her in the leg as she approaches the house. Her leg wound becomes infected, and she has hallucinations of her own. Now back on his rampage, Loomis uses Ann’s dog, Faro, to track her hiding spot in the cave and torches everything she owns. Ann, already having escaped, now decides that it is time to leave the farm. She finally realizes that John Loomis is completely insane. She begins hatching a plan to steal his safe-suit and run off to neighboring valleys in search of a safer community.
Worried that her dog Faro might be able to track her as he did before, she struggles with the thought of killing him, but is unable to do so. Unfortunately, Faro ends up in the creek and succumbs to radiation poisoning. Ann leaves a note for Loomis as a distraction, then steals his safe-suit. Loomis catches her on her way out, but before he has a chance to shoot her again, she reveals that she knows his secret – Loomis killed Edward over the safe-suit. His remorse kicks in, and he begs her to stay with him. Loomis doesn’t want to be alone again, but Ann has made her decision.
As a sign of good faith, Loomis tells Ann that he noticed some birds flying around due West from the farm, and that there is a good chance for her to find life there. She appreciates the advice, and offers to send someone back for him if she succeeds in finding anyone. The novel ends with them finally on amicable terms, and Ann walking off into the radiated zone that she once feared so much.Z for Zachariah
has won multiple awards, including the prestigous Edgar award, for its strong writing and evocative themes of science versus nature, power struggles, and individual freedom. O’Brien died before the book was finished, however his family used his notes to complete the novel, and since then it has been adapted into a few movies. The book received stellar reviews and has been charming mystery and science fiction lovers for over thirty years.