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Z for Zachariah
(Robert C. O’Brien)

Robert C. O’Brien’s last novel takes the form of journal entries written by Ann Burden a year after nuclear war has destroyed her family and much—perhaps all—of the outside world. The poisoned environment keeps Ann within her family’s valley, which enjoys "its own weather" and so has largely escaped the disaster. The story begins when Ann sees campfire smoke and realizes that a stranger is about to arrive; it ends months later as she abandons her homestead and embarks upon her own journey of discovery. Z for Zachariah, then, is at once a Robinson Crusoe story, a rewriting of the Eden myth, and an adventure focusing on generational and gender conflict.
The plot is deceptively simple. Ann, who had intended to become an English teacher, is a humanist who welcomes the idea of companionship. Although she is in some ways a dreamer, imagining marriage and children as one possible outcome of John Loomis’ arrival, she also has the strong practical streak that has enabled her to manage by herself, growing her own food and augmenting it with the stocks culled from the local store. Her understanding of humanity’s darker side prompts her to conceal herself from Loomis until she can ascertain what sort of person he is. As she watches him, he makes the mistake of swimming in Burden Creek, the one contaminated part of the valley, and contracts radiation sickness. Ann nurses him through his severe illness, gradually learning his history—more from his delirious ramblings than from his conscious statements.
Loomis is potentially both an asset and a threat. On the one hand, he is technologically sophisticated, able to advise Ann on returning her father’s tractor to use and to design an electric generator. He owes his own survival to his possession of "the last useful thing anybody ever made," a "safe-suit" that repels radiation; with the safe-suit, Ann realizes, they may venture out into the world to bring back the books her hungry mind craves. On the other hand, he is ruthless: he has killed his laboratory partner in order to keep the suit. While Ann understands that the murder may have been justifiable as self-defense, Loomis’ inability to consider anyone’s viewpoint but his own leads him to attempt to rape Ann, apparently as the first step in repopulating Earth. Eluding him, she embarks on an insecure existence in the woods, but he refuses to allow a stalemate; he tries to capture her and keep her a prisoner in her family’s house. The situation requires Ann to implement a ruthlessness akin to his own, causing the death of her dog (the only living link to her family) because Loomis is using the animal to track her and finally stealing the safe-suit in order to search for another miraculously preserved enclave, a more stable community where there will be children to teach.

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