Z for Zachariah
||This article has been nominated to be checked for its neutrality. (October 2012)|
Puffin Teenage Fiction Cover
|Author||Robert C. O'Brien|
|Cover artist||Larry Rostant|
|Genre||Children, Science fiction|
|Published||1974 (Atheneum Books)|
|Media type||Hardback & Paperback|
|Pages||192 (249 in Hardback version)|
Z for Zachariah is a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel by Robert C. O'Brien that was published posthumously in 1974. The name Robert C. O'Brien was the pen name used by Robert Leslie Conly. After the author's death in 1973, his wife Sally M. Conly and daughter Jane Leslie Conly completed the book guided by his notes. Set in the Midwestern USA, the story is in the form of a diary written from the first-person perspective of sixteen-year-old Ann Burden, who has survived a nuclear war and nerve gas through living in a small valley with a self-contained weather system.
According to Sally Conly, Z for Zachariah was her husband's second novel intended for adults, following his 1972 science-fiction thriller A Report from Group 17. O'Brien had previously established himself as a children's writer with his novels The Silver Crown (1968) and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971). In 1976, Z for Zachariah won the Jane Addams Children's Book Award and the Edgar Award for the best mystery fiction in the juvenile category.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters
- 3 Setting
- 4 Major Themes
- 5 Adaptations
- 6 Notes
- 7 External links
Ann fears a stranger, then hopes to marry him
On May 20, Ann writes of a stranger approaching the valley where she has lived alone for a year, believing herself the last survivor of a nuclear war. Afraid he might kill or enslave her, she hides in a cave and decides not to warn him about a radioactive stream. But when he bathes in it and sickens, her fear of being alone forever leads her to help him. The stranger is John Loomis, a chemist with Cornell University who helped design a prototype radiation-proof “safe-suit” at an underground lab near Ithaca, New York. After searching many months for survivors, he headed west and found Ann’s valley. Despite knowing he may die from radiation sickness, Loomis is impressively calm and practical. He helpfully explains how to get gas manually for the tractor and begins planning a hydroelectric generator. Having the companion she often wished for, Ann imagines a church wedding the following spring; but she decides not to share her feelings until Loomis is better. While plowing on June 2, she recites Millay's poem "Epitaph for the Race of Man," hopeful their children can keep humanity from dying, and she wishes she’d warned Loomis about the stream.
Ann's fear returns
As Loomis declines, he has traumatic nightmares of shooting a coworker, Edward, who tried to take the safe-suit to find family. The dreams are terrifying to Loomis and end in desperate groans verging on tears. Though aware Loomis acted in self-defense and needed the suit to find survivors, Ann becomes increasingly scared again as he recovers. When he makes practical plans and sometimes scolds her (e.g., for neglecting planting), she begins to think he is possessive and controlling; and his plan to start a colony together makes her uneasy despite her similar hopes earlier. Imagining his behavior shows more disturbing signs, by June 23 Ann thinks of Loomis as a murderer and fears his horrible experiences damaged his mind.
Ann goes into hiding and refuses friendship
Ann’s fears seem validated when, early on June 28, she awakes in the dark to hear Loomis in her doorway. Fearing he heard her wake, she pretends to be asleep in the hope he will leave. But when he tries to lie on top of her, she breaks free and hides in her cave again after getting store supplies. On July 1, Ann proposes a "compromise" of sharing the valley and farm work but living separate lives, which Loomis has no choice but to accept. Not understanding her refusal to return, he hopes she will change her mind and “act more like an adult." Though this arrangement is inconvenient and Ann worries about surviving winter, she assumes there’s no alternative and only wishes Loomis had never come.
Loomis tries to force Ann's return
About 10 days later, Loomis begins measures which Ann assumes are to force her return and control limited store supplies she relies on. Realizing her denial of companionship may have provoked him, Ann decides to offer to talk sometimes; but when she approaches the house, Loomis shoots at her from a window. He then uses her cousin’s dog, Faro, to track her to the cave, where he burns her belongings and takes one of her guns. Nursing a bullet-grazed ankle that becomes infected, Ann hides in a hollow tree and has feverish dreams of another valley where children wait for her to teach them. Believing the dreams true and Loomis insane, she plans to steal the safe-suit and find this other valley. She also decides to kill Faro, making her feel equally a murderer. Two weeks later, after Loomis tries to lure Ann to the store and wound her again, she tricks him in turn by leading Faro to a planned "trap" where stones span the dead stream. Hiding on the other side, she scares Loomis with gunfire so that he panics, letting Faro swim across the stream to Ann and become fatally poisoned.
Endgame: Ann tricks Loomis by offering to talk
Again believing she has no choice, on August 7 Ann puts her plan into effect by offering to discuss returning if Loomis meets her unarmed at the valley’s south end, and she is amazed when her ruse works. Wearing the stolen safe-suit, she waits on Burden Hill for a last meeting. When Loomis arrives on the tractor enraged and threatens to kill Ann if she doesn’t return the suit, she finally reveals knowing of Edward, despairingly inviting Loomis to murder her the same way. However, Loomis suddenly becomes dispirited and passive, explaining that Edward tried to steal the suit like Ann. Seeming frightened and confused, he begs her not to leave him alone, saying, “It’s wrong.” But Ann merely blames him because he never thanked her for nursing him; and, after these admittedly childish last words, she heads off into the deadness, expecting to be shot in the back. Loomis’s last action is to call out that he once saw birds circling to the west. Ann walks on through most of the night until, exhausted, she sleeps in the open without setting up the protective tent. Late the next morning, she continues west beside a dead stream, hoping to see a green horizon.
As with all first-person narratives, understanding the story's characters is complicated by the narrator's perspective, which potentially limits and biases any information other than statements of fact.
Ann regards herself as a sensible and ethical person. When she takes extreme measures, she often explains she does so unwillingly and only because she must in order to protect herself. Reviewers generally sympathize with Ann and take for granted her moral sense. When the stranger in her valley becomes sick, some view her as helping him only because of pity and kindness. She is a sensitive person who loves nature and literature, finds comfort in prayer, and seems to revere life (as when she rescues a baby crow). Her resourcefulness, independence, and courage are shown by her surviving alone for a year and then outwitting an older man who apparently tries to exploit her.
However, a 1975 review in Publisher's Weekly noted that both characters are "crazed by paranoia, thinking the worst of each other." It is often overlooked that Ann's initial fear of someone she has never met leads her to let him swim in a dead stream. Her primary justifications are her questionable claims that she is unsure about the stream and that hiding is the only way to ensure her safety from a potential tyrant who would enslave her. Reviewers who laud Ann for kindness to Loomis seem to ignore not only her partial responsibility for his sickness but also that a sudden fear of being alone forever is the only motive she mentions for helping him.
Ann's main weaknesses are youthful self-centeredness and a tendency to let her feelings bias her judgments. From the outset, Ann has an irrational fear of meeting a cruel murderer and being enslaved. Upon learning Loomis killed a man, this fear immediately returns and she starts interpreting his impatience with her as a sign he is domineering. Soon she forgets her reasoning that he acted in self-defense and just assumes he is a murderer, ignoring the fact that murder involves premeditation. In the end, wanting desperately to escape Loomis, Ann even believes feverish dreams that children are waiting for her in another valley.
Loomis tends to be regarded as a coldly rational scientist obsessed with controlling the valley to ensure the survival of remaining plant and animal species. To this end, he appears to view Ann merely as breeding stock that he can use to start a human colony, and he does not tolerate her refusal to cooperate. Loomis's short temper seems a sign of this domineering tendency, and his nightmares about killing a man for a protective suit suggest the ruthless cruelty he is capable of—apparently shown again when he hunts Ann in the wilderness.
However, such views of Loomis are all based on Ann's judgments of him when she is fearful, and they may seem inconsistent. Obsession with preserving the species is not consistent with supposed willingness to kill Ann, the last woman. Moreover, in judging Loomis a ruthless murderer for killing to ensure his survival, Ann ignores her recognition "it was self-defense"; and this judgment is inconsistent with justifying herself for letting Loomis bathe in a dead stream to ensure her own safety.
Loomis is a highly educated scientist who worked closely with a Nobel Laureate. Disciplined in careful reasoning, he can be impatient with the emotionalism and illogic of a teenager such as Ann, as when she proposes borrowing the only safe-suit to get library books from a radioactive wasteland. Loomis appears mainly concerned about the need for companionship, planning for their survival, and preserving endangered species. Since they both believe they are the last humans and hope to continue their species, Loomis's sleeping with Ann is a logical necessity. The main problem seems to be their poor communication. Ann repeatedly chooses to hide her feelings, such as when she hopes to marry Loomis, he recovers from near-fatal sickness, and she is troubled by his nightmares. On the other hand, Loomis seems to lack tact and sensitivity. Rather than courting Ann, he speaks in scientific terms of their need to start a colony together, and he bluntly asks her intentions when she inquires about his past love life. Yet he is not unfeeling. He deeply appreciates Ann's piano playing, and his first words when he recovers show that a strong emotional bond with Ann kept him alive. Despite his faults, Loomis is more honest about his expectations, whereas Ann never openly expresses any of her thoughts about their relationship. She says nothing to either explain her attitude or correct his assumptions, even when he stands in her doorway at night. Afterwards, Ann's determination to deny any friendship and hide in the wilderness as winter approaches of course seems to Loomis foolish behavior that threatens their survival; and her stubborn claim, "I will not change my mind," offers him no hope of reasoning with her. As Ann recognizes too late, it may be her inflexible refusal of companionship that then drives Loomis to take extreme measures to force her return.
The story's events are set almost entirely in Burden Valley, a small and remote valley in the American Midwest. It was named after the protagonist's ancestors, who were its first settlers and built a farm in the northern end. The only other inhabitants were the Kleins, a couple who lived over the store and mainly did business with Amish farmers to the south.
The valley is approximately 4 miles long, from Burden Hill in the north to an S-shaped pass in the south called "the gap." The largest of its two streams, Burden Creek, is radioactive because of flowing from the top of a ridge in the northwest. It runs parallel to the road from north to south and exits the valley through the gap. A smaller stream originates from a deep spring on an eastern hillside and feeds a small lake with fish that provide an important food source for Ann. The stream then meanders south and flows through a culvert under the road to join Burden Creek. Much of the valley is made up of woodlands, particularly on the inner slopes of the surrounding hills.
The few animals in Burden Valley are probably the last ones of their species. Ann notes that there are a lot of rabbits and squirrels. There are also a few crows, which Ann believes are the last surviving birds because only they had the "sense" to stay in the valley. Migratory birds seem an example of a species betrayed and killed by its own instincts. The domestic animals on Ann's farm include two cows, a young bull calf, and some chickens. Finally, there is the last surviving dog, Faro, who belonged to Ann's cousin David.
The most important feature of the valley is that it is somehow separated from the surrounding atmosphere and has its own weather system. Loomis calls it a meteorological enclave created by an inversion (i.e., air only rising, not falling), but he views its existence as so unlikely that it is only a theoretical possibility. In fact, Loomis's scientific assessment seems correct because the air in a valley could not be separate from the planet's atmosphere unless the valley's walls were unbroken and rose as high as the tropopause, the level at which temperature begins to increase and air only rises. In any other situation, a valley's air would necessarily mix with surrounding air, and pollution would enter from above. However, for the purposes of this story, readers must suspend disbelief to accept that at least one valley with a self-contained weather system exists, allowing some life to continue after global nuclear war.
Seeing the story as a conflict between an innocent girl and a domineering male scientist bent on controlling the valley, reviewers have found themes such as the destructiveness of science (at least when it is separated from conscience), the corrupting effect of the desire for power, and the moral value of individual freedom. Ann's sensitivity and love of nature are viewed as contrasting with Loomis's callous reasoning and selfish compulsion to take control. Writing for The Spectator in April 1975, Peter Ackroyd concludes that "science turns paradise sour." Reviews the same year in The Junior Bookshelf and Times Literary Supplement described Ann as an unwilling Eve who "finally refuses to begin the whole story over again," apparently viewing the end of the human story as a good thing.
In February 1984, the BBC presented a film adaptation for its Play for Today series in which the setting was changed from America to Wales.
A film adaptation of the novel is currently in production with financing from Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Material Pictures. It stars Chris Pine, Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Craig Zobel directs from an adapted script by Nissar Modi. Filming began in January 2014 on New Zealand's Banks Peninsula. 
- O'Brien, Robert C. About the Author. Z for Zachariah. 1974. New York: Simon Pulse, 2007.
- O'Brien, Sally M. "About Robert C. O'Brien". The Horn Book Magazine (1972): 349–351. Masis, Boris. "What has been said about Robert C. O'Brien". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
- Cullinan, Bernice E. and Diane Goetz. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. p. 598. ISBN 0826415164
- O'Brien, p. 36.
- O'Brien, p. 26, 31.
- O'Brien, p. 45.
- O'Brien, p. 52.
- O'Brien, p. 81.
- O'Brien, p. 81, 101.
- O'Brien, p. 96, 101.
- O'Brien, p. 111, 117.
- O'Brien, pp. 126-127.
- O'Brien, p. 143, 149, 162.
- O'Brien, p. 152.
- O'Brien, p. 157.
- O'Brien, p. 183.
- O'Brien, p. 190.
- O'Brien, p. 217.
- O'Brien, p. 218.
- O'Brien, p. 2, 32. Ann refers to David as her cousin, but she later explains he came to live with her family after being orphaned by his father's death.
- O'Brien, pp. 226-228.
- O'Brien, p. 225.
- O'Brien, p. 237.
- O'Brien, pp. 233-235.
- O'Brien, pp. 240-241.
- O'Brien, p. 247.
- O'Brien, p. 248.
- Publisher's Weekly (January 27, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
- O'Brien, p. 45.
- O'Brien, p. 36.
- O'Brien, p. 126.
- O'Brien, p. 137-138.
- O'Brien, p. 190.
- O'Brien, p. 29.
- O'Brien, p. 10.
- O'Brien, p. 40.
- O'Brien, p. 56.
- Ackroyd, Peter. The Spectator (April 12, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
- The Junior Bookshelf v.39 (June 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
- Times Literary Supplement (April 4, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
- O'Brien, Robert C. Z for Zachariah. 1974. New York: Simon Pulse, 2007.
- Z for Zachariah Reviews (a collection of reviews from 1975 to 1984)
- Robert C. O'Brien News (IMDb's links to blogs about film adaptations of O'Brien's novels)
- Z for Zachariah Analysis (an interpretation of Ann as an unreliable narrator)
- Z for Zachariah Literary References (support for the above interpretation)
- Z for Zachariah (1984) at the Internet Movie Database
- Notes about Z for Zachariah (A site with several years of collected blog posts offering detailed analysis and some teaching material)
- Reviews and Ratings for BBC's Z for Zachariah (1984) (including a teacher's take on the story's unreliable narrator)
- Tobey Maquire, Craig Zobel line up 'Zachariah' (Variety's article on the 2013 film adaptation)