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 fears a stranger, then hopes to marry him[edit]

Ann Burden's diary begins on Monday, May 20. After living alone for a year and believing herself the last survivor of a nuclear war, Ann fears that a stranger approaching her valley might be a killer or enslave her. She hides in a cave to judge his character first from a distance, not revealing herself even to warn him against bathing in a dead stream. However, when he then sickens, Ann's fear of being alone forever moves her to help him. The stranger is John R. Loomis, a chemist with Cornell University who helped a Nobel-winning professor design radiation-proof plastic and a prototype "safe-suit." After three months in an underground lab near Ithaca, New York, he spent seven months searching unsuccessfully for other survivors. Then he headed west, finding Burden Valley after walking through dead lands for ten weeks. During the first stage of Loomis's illness, Ann enjoys his company and feels optimistic about their future. He tells Ann how to pump gas manually and begins plans for a hydroelectric generator. Soon, Ann hopes for a church wedding in the spring; and, while plowing on June 2, she recites Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Epitaph for the Race of Man," happy they can keep humanity from dying.[4] She wishes she had warned Loomis about the poisoned stream.

Ann's fear returns[edit]

As Loomis's condition worsens, he has disturbing nightmares about shooting a coworker, Edward, who tried to take the safe-suit to find his family. Though aware Loomis may have acted in self-defense and intended to find other survivors, Ann thinks his journey west suggests selfish motives. After nearly dying, Loomis speaks again on June 8 and says Ann's companionship saved him. But during his recovery over the next two weeks, Ann worries when he plans for their future in the valley and sometimes scolds her—for neglecting farm work and wanting to use the safe-suit to get books. When he says on June 19 that they must start a colony together, Ann is uneasy despite her similar hopes earlier. By June 23, Ann thinks of Loomis as a murderer and fears that his horrible experiences have damaged his mind. She then becomes very nervous when, after she asks if he ever married, Loomis grabs her hand and demands to know her intentions. She feels sure he is trying to control her possessively, just as he "controlled" her farm work, the suit, and Edward.[5] In the next few days, Ann sees more disturbing signs in Loomis's behavior, such as when she reads aloud Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice but he doesn't seem to listen.

Ann goes into hiding and refuses friendship[edit]

During the night of June 27–28, after falling asleep in her clothes, Ann awakes in the dark to hear Loomis's breathing nearby. She then thinks her fears are validated when he tries to get on the bed with her as she continues to lie there quietly—assuming he believes her asleep and hoping he will go away. Ann flees and, after getting store supplies, returns to her cave hideout. Over the next few days, Ann watches Loomis use her cousin David's dog,[6] Faro, to practice tracking her, and she begins to feel she is in "a game of move-countermove" that only Loomis wants to play and only he can win.[7] Worrying also about neglected farm work, on July 1 Ann talks to Loomis to suggest a "compromise" of sharing the valley and farm work while living separate lives.[8] Loomis does not understand why Ann won't return to her house, but he accepts her demands because he has no choice. He only hopes she will change her mind and "act more like an adult."[9] For about ten days, Ann thinks her system of living separately is working. Though it is inconvenient and she worries about spending winter in the cave, she assumes there is nothing else she can do. She wishes Loomis had never come to the valley.

Loomis tries to force Ann's return[edit]

Around July 10, Loomis denies Ann access to the tractor and the store, warning her that she must forgo many conveniences if she continues her "stupidity" of staying away.[10] Ann guesses he is trying to force her to return or he has a "compulsion for taking charge of things" as part of long-term planning.[11] Deciding for the first time to talk with him to learn his intentions, Ann realizes she might be causing his behavior by denying companionship, and she thinks it sensible to offer to talk sometimes. However, when she goes to the house, Loomis tries to wound her by shooting from a window. He then tracks Ann to her cave, where he burns all her belongings and takes one of her guns.

Ann is forced to hide in the wilderness nursing a bullet-grazed ankle, which becomes infected. Over the next several days, she develops a fever and begins dreaming of another valley where children are waiting for a teacher. Believing her dreams are true and Loomis is insane, Ann plans to steal the safe-suit and leave the valley. This will also be her revenge for the burning of her favorite book. For a couple of weeks, Loomis focuses on farm work and preparations for winter while Ann lives miserably, scrounging for food. One day, he tries to lure Ann to the store to attempt again to wound and incapacitate her; but Ann tricks him in turn, leading him into a trap she planned for killing Faro. After Ann fires a warning shot, Loomis is surprised she still has a gun and flees, releasing Faro. The dog then swims across Burden Creek to reach Ann and dies the next day of radiation sickness. In planning to kill Faro, Ann feels she is "as much a murderer as Mr. Loomis."[12]

Endgame: Ann tricks Loomis by offering to talk[edit]

Believing Loomis has forced her into action, on August 7 Ann takes the offensive by leaving a message that she will talk about returning if he meets her unarmed. When he surprisingly leaves his gun to meet her in good faith, Ann steals his safe-suit and cart. While carrying out her plan, she remembers sadly her hopes they would save humanity together. Ann then waits on Burden Hill for a last meeting with Loomis, who arrives on the tractor enraged, ignores a warning shot, and threatens to kill her if she doesn't return the suit. However, when Ann accuses him of killing Edward the same way, revealing what he said during his sickness, Loomis suddenly becomes dispirited and passive. When Ann declares she has no choice because of refusing to be his prisoner, Loomis replies in fright and bewilderment, "It's wrong," and begs her not to leave him there alone.[13] Finally, in admittedly childish manner, Ann blames Loomis because he never thanked her for nursing him.[14] As she walks away expecting to be shot in the back, Loomis calls out that he once saw birds circling to the west. She then keeps walking for most of the night until, exhausted, she lies down without setting up the protective tent. The story ends uncertainly. Awaking late the next morning, Ann continues west beside a dead stream, hoping to see green on the 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 Burden[edit]

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[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.

John Loomis[edit]

In reviews of the story, 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";[18] 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.[19] 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,"[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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."[25] Reviews the same year in The Junior Bookshelf[26] and Times Literary Supplement[27] 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.[28][29][30] Filming began in January 2014 on New Zealand's Banks Peninsula. [31]



  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. 96.
  5. ^ O'Brien, p. 162.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ O'Brien, p. 186.
  8. ^ O'Brien, p. 183.
  9. ^ O'Brien, p. 190.
  10. ^ O'Brien, p. 205.
  11. ^ O'Brien, p. 217.
  12. ^ O'Brien, p. 225.
  13. ^ O'Brien, p. 247.
  14. ^ O'Brien, p. 248.
  15. ^ Publisher's Weekly (January 27, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
  16. ^ O'Brien, p. 45.
  17. ^ O'Brien, p. 36.
  18. ^ O'Brien, p. 126.
  19. ^ O'Brien, p. 137-138.
  20. ^ O'Brien, p. 190.
  21. ^ O'Brien, p. 29.
  22. ^ O'Brien, p. 10.
  23. ^ O'Brien, p. 40.
  24. ^ O'Brien, p. 56.
  25. ^ Ackroyd, Peter. The Spectator (April 12, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
  26. ^ The Junior Bookshelf v.39 (June 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
  27. ^ Times Literary Supplement (April 4, 1975), Masis, Boris. "Z for Zachariah Reviews". The Z for Zachariah Nuclear Comparison Page. 1997.
  28. ^ http://www.hsx.com/security/view/ZFZAC
  29. ^ http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=37520
  30. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/the-wolf-of-wall-street-star-margot-robbie-secures-another-hollywood-deal-20140119-312nr.html
  31. ^ 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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