Z for Zachariah

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Z for Zachariah
Puffin Teenage Fiction Cover
Author Robert C. O'Brien
Cover artist Larry Rostant
Country United States
Language English
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.[1] 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.[2] 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[3] and the Edgar Award for the best mystery fiction in the juvenile category.

Plot summary[edit]

Ann Burden is a teenage girl who thought she was the last survivor of a nuclear war. Since her family's disappearance on a search expedition, she has lived alone on her farm in a small valley protected from radiation poisoning. In late May during the year after the war, a stranger in a radiation-proof suit approaches her valley. Afraid that a selfish and cruel man could enslave her, Ann hides in a cave and tries to eliminate evidence of her presence (regrettably, including a productive garden).[4] Still afraid to reveal herself after watching for a day, Ann decides not to warn the man when he mistakenly bathes in a radioactive stream.[5] But when he sickens, her fear of being alone forever leads her to reveal herself to help him.[6]

The stranger is John Loomis, a chemist 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 Burden Valley.[7] Ann is impressed by Loomis's calm practicality, knowing she would be hysterical if she had possibly fatal radiation poisoning.[8] Loomis is amazed the valley is radiation-free (a "meteorological enclave"); and, after Ann moves him into her house, he explains how to get gas manually for the tractor and begins planning a hydroelectric generator. Having the companion she often wished for, Ann quickly imagines a church wedding the following spring.[9] But she decides it is too soon to get engaged, since they just met, he might not like her, and he is sick.[10] Still, she is hopeful that their children can keep humanity from dying. While plowing, she recites lines from her favorite poem, Millay's "Epitaph for the Race of Man," happy that she is no longer the scribe and confessor of humanity like the speaker in the poem.[11] But she wishes she had warned Loomis about the stream.[12]

As Loomis becomes more ill and delirious, he has traumatic flashbacks about the underground lab where he shot his coworker, Edward, who tried to take the safe-suit to find his family.[13] Deeply troubled that Loomis killed a man, Ann debates whether he is a murderer. Needing the safesuit to survive and leave his lab, he may have acted in self-defense and also intended to use it to find other survivors;[14] yet Ann thinks his final journey west suggests he just wanted the suit to "strike out on his own." Nevertheless, desperately afraid of being alone forever, Ann prays Loomis will live even though he could be a murderer. Keeping her doubts about him secret, she nurses him through his illness. As Loomis slowly recovers his strength, Ann's original fear of being controlled returns and increases. The first time he speaks again, saying her companionship saved him, she restrains an urge to hug and shows no feeling for him.[15] Loomis repeatedly behaves in ways that Ann feels are controlling and possessive. For instance, he blames her for not planting corn and forbids her using the safesuit to get books,[16] and his plan for them to start a permanentcolony makes her uneasy despite her similar hopes earlier.[17] One time, he takes her hand firmly and demands why she asked about his past love life, then seems to blame her for being uncomfortable.[18] Disturbed by his behavior, by June 23 Ann thinks of Loomis as a murderer and fears his horrible experiences have damaged his mind.[19]

Ann thinks her fears are 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, not considering that her silence might seem a tacit invitation. But when Loomis feels for her shoulder and tries to lie on top of her, Ann ends her pretense and twists free. After a brief struggle, as Loomis grabs Ann blindly and she elbows him in the throat, she flees to the cave, where she hides in terror for a few days, watching constantly and scared to sleep.

On the morning of July 1, Ann speaks with Loomis from a safe distance and proposes a "compromise" of sharing the valley and farm work but living separate lives.[20] Amazed that he is sorry and hopes to be friends again, "as if nothing had happened,"[21] Ann thinks he is just pretending innocence. Saying he has no choice but to accept her proposal, Loomis hopes she will reconsider and “act more like an adult";[22] but Ann assures him she will not change her mind. Though this arrangement is "unnatural and uneasy," and Ann worries about surviving winter, she assumes there’s no alternative and now wishes Loomis had never come.[23]

About 10 days later, Loomis begins trying to control resources and force Ann's return by taking the tractor key and locking the store, which contains limited supplies she relies on.[24] Thinking she may have provoked him by denying any companionship, Ann observes, "There are people who cannot stand being alone; perhaps he was acting from despair."[25] She decides it is sensible to offer to talk sometimes from a safe distance; but when she approaches the house, Loomis shockingly shoots at her from a window. He then uses her cousin’s dog, Faro,[26] 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. Ann comes to believe the dreams are true and Loomis is insane, so she plans to steal the safe-suit and find her dream valley.[27] Moreover, she decides to kill Faro to prevent Loomis from tracking her in the meantime, making her feel equally a murderer.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30]

Believing she must leave the valley, on August 7 Ann lures Loomis away from the house by offering to discuss her return if he meets her unarmed in the south.[31] Amazed that her ruse works, she steals the safe-suit, puts it on, and waits on Burden Hill for a last meeting. When Loomis arrives on the tractor enraged, threatening to kill Ann if she doesn’t return the suit, she finally reveals knowing of Edward and despairingly invites Loomis to murder her the same way. However, Loomis suddenly becomes dispirited and passive, explaining weakly 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.”[32] After offering to send others to Loomis if she finds anyone, Ann finally blames him because he never thanked her for nursing him; and, after these admittedly childish last words,[33] she heads off into the deadness. Though she expects to be shot in the back, Loomis's last action is to call out that he once saw birds circling to the west. Ann then 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.


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.

Ann believes 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.[34] 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 bull calf, and some chickens.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37] 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.

Major Themes[edit]

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."[38] Reviews the same year in The Junior Bookshelf[39] and Times Literary Supplement[40] described Ann as an unwilling Eve who "finally refuses to begin the whole story over again."


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.[41][42][43] Filming began in January 2014 on New Zealand's Banks Peninsula.[44]



  1. ^ O'Brien, Robert C. About the Author. Z for Zachariah. 1974. New York: Simon Pulse, 2007.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ O'Brien, p. 36.
  5. ^ O'Brien, p. 26, 31.
  6. ^ O'Brien, p. 45.
  7. ^ O'Brien, p. 52.
  8. ^ O'Brien, p. 52.
  9. ^ O'Brien, p. 81.
  10. ^ O'Brien, p. 81, 101.
  11. ^ O'Brien, p. 96.
  12. ^ O'Brien, p. 101.
  13. ^ O'Brien, p. 111, 117.
  14. ^ O'Brien, pp. 126-127.
  15. ^ O'Brien, pp. 137-139.
  16. ^ O'Brien, p. 143, 149, 162.
  17. ^ O'Brien, p. 152.
  18. ^ O'Brien, p. 160.
  19. ^ O'Brien, p. 157.
  20. ^ O'Brien, p. 183.
  21. ^ O'Brien, p. 189.
  22. ^ O'Brien, p. 190.
  23. ^ O'Brien, p. 192, 195.
  24. ^ O'Brien, p. 217-218.
  25. ^ O'Brien, p. 218.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ O'Brien, pp. 226-228.
  28. ^ O'Brien, p. 225.
  29. ^ O'Brien, p. 237.
  30. ^ O'Brien, pp. 233-235.
  31. ^ O'Brien, pp. 240-241.
  32. ^ O'Brien, p. 247.
  33. ^ O'Brien, p. 248.
  34. ^ O'Brien, p. 29.
  35. ^ O'Brien, p. 10.
  36. ^ O'Brien, p. 40.
  37. ^ O'Brien, p. 56.
  38. ^ Ackroyd, Peter. The Spectator (April 12, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
  39. ^ The Junior Bookshelf v.39 (June 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
  40. ^ Times Literary Supplement (April 4, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
  41. ^ http://www.hsx.com/security/view/ZFZAC
  42. ^ http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=37520
  43. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/the-wolf-of-wall-street-star-margot-robbie-secures-another-hollywood-deal-20140119-312nr.html
  44. ^ http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/9528837/Hot-names-star-in-Port-Levy-sci-fi


  • O'Brien, Robert C. Z for Zachariah. 1974. New York: Simon Pulse, 2007.

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