“Z for Zachariah” by Robert C. O’Brien

[Spoiler alert]
A girl alone after nuclear war, running her family farm; a man walks in from the dead zone, in a unique suit and equipment that sustains life in radioactive environments. She romantically imagines marriage and a family; he imagines similar, but his attempts to begin the process (grabbing her) scare her off, and a potentially murderous stand-off ensues, rather like the “Hell is other people” Sartre play. This game of chess with rifles ends with our heroine stealing the suit and leaving the valley, with the man’s forced blessing.
It’s a very good book: slow-fused, carefully paced, and strong on the tension between what we know about her from her journal, and what we can make out about His actions and motivations, again from her journal. Is he a difficult, sometimes violent, man, or is he driven by the situation facing mankind to do whatever it takes for the species’ survival? Either way, we like Ann from the start, and admire her resourcefulness and kindness, even if her resourcefulness leads her to walk off to her death, abandoning the last chance mankind has of breeding, or even if her kindness, in continuing to tend and feed a brute, is sentimental and misplaced.
Ann’s Sunday School book started with “A for Adam” – the first man – and ended with what she thought referred to the last man – “Z for Zachariah”. We’re left ignorant of whether he is or not.

Yet the whole book is also a clever metaphor for a girl’s coming-of-age: the girlish fantasies of blossom and marriage; the replacement of (literally) familiar brothers and father by a strange male (who sat in her father’s chair and wore his clothes); the shock of mail sexuality; and, for Ann, a withdrawal into a new fantasty of teaching young children.

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