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Literature / Z for Zachariah

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Z For Zachariah is a 1974 novel by Robert C. O'Brien (the same author who wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, later made into The Secret of NIMH by Don Bluth). O'Brien did not finish the book before his death in 1973. His wife and daughter ultimately ended up completing the novel, aided by his notes.

It's a post-apocalyptic novel for young adults, following sixteen-year-old Ann Burden, who believes she's the only survivor of a nuclear war that seems to have wiped out the rest of the world. For a largely unexplained reason, the valley in which she lives seems to have escaped the nuclear fallout, meaning she's able to make it on her own.

A year after the war, another person, a man named John Loomis, finds her valley. He's survived thanks to a suit he designed before the war, a prototype of a radiation suit that had been planned to be mass-produced before the war interrupted it. He gives himself radiation sickness by bathing in a contaminated stream, leaving Ann to take care of him. At first he seems okay, but as he gets better he becomes more and more controlling and downright creepy, culminating in an attempt to rape Ann.

She runs away to the other side of the valley, where she tells him she will stay once she's finished taking care of the agricultural work and tending to the animals. What follows becomes a cat-and-mouse game with Loomis trying to force her to return, locking the small store where their seeds and fertilizer must come from, taking away the key to the tractor, and eventually trying to shoot her so she can't run away. Eventually she manages to steal the suit while he's out, and confronts him just before she leaves the valley, telling him that if he shoots her he really will be alone. Realizing he'll never get her to stay, he tells her he saw birds circling to the west, and the book ends with her writing in her journal, "I am hopeful."

There was a BBC made-for-tv movie in 1984, and a big-screen adaptation was released in 2015, starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine. The first trailer can be viewed here.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: Ann has a gun of her own, and has several opportunities to shoot Loomis, but ultimately decides to leave instead.
  • Adam and Eve Plot: Ann considers this, but discovers Loomis was there ahead of her when he tries out the attempted rape listed below.
  • After the End: Nuclear and biochemical warfare appear to have wiped out most of the human race.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Unfortunately for Ann.
  • Apocalypse How: Either a Class 2 or Class 3-it's never revealed if anyone survived outside the valley.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Radiation-proof suits do exist, but they don't work the way Loomis's does. It's described as using a type of magnetized plastic to deflect radiation, on the grounds that Earth's magnetic field is what stops harmful radiation from reaching the planet's surface. The problem with this is twofold: one, plastic cannot be magnetized, and two, the magnetic fields do not block electromagnetic radiation, only charged particles such as cosmic rays and solar wind.
  • Attempted Rape: Fortunately for Ann, Loomis is still so radiation-sick she fights him off without much difficulty.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The novel ends with Ann venturing out of the valley using Loomis' radiation suit and into the radiated zone, looking for other survivors. She's hopeful about her fate and has a dream of her teaching that may be Dreaming of Things to Come, but it's equally likely that she'll become sick and die without ever meeting other survivors. Alternatively if she finds no other survivors she can always return to Loomis
  • Break the Cutie: Loomis tries to do this, but ultimately fails, largely because Ann is a lot saner and more practical than he is.
  • The Caretaker: Ann, while Loomis is dealing with the radiation sickness.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: In the books, Ann is orphaned after her family likely dies while investigating further out; her being Alone with the Psycho wouldn't be nearly as effective with a family around.
  • The Deadliest Mushroom: This takes care of most of the world.
  • Deadly Gas: It's stated that nerve gas was used in addition to nuclear weapons.
  • The Ditz: Loomis regards Ann as this, and indeed initially shows himself to be much smarter, working out such things as how to use the fuel pumps without power (i.e. Read the Freaking Manual). Unfortunately he fails to show similar cleverness in interpersonal relations, trying to force the issue when Ann shyly asks if he used to be married.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Possibly. At one point Ann dreams of a classroom of children she's teaching, and it's implied that it might be a dream of what she'll find once she's left the valley.
  • Driven to Villainy: It's implied that Loomis didn't become a monster until the war hit.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Big time.
  • Epistolary Novel: The entire narrative is written in the form of Ann's journal.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Ann initially thinks this; later, once she's discovered she's not the only one left, she has great cause to wish it was true.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Ann wakes up one night to hear Faro growling, before something happens that causes him to yelp and scurry out of the room. Moments later, she's fighting off Loomis as he tries to rape her.
  • The Film of the Book: A made-for-TV movie was produced in Britain in 1984. The setting was changed to Wales, but much of the rest of the story was left unaltered. A big-screen movie starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine was released in 2015.
  • Foreshadowing: While he's still sick and hasn't yet showed any real signs of creepy, Loomis says, "Ann Burden, you'll wish I'd never come here." Boy, does he turn out to be right.
  • Growing Up Sucks: It definitely does when you're one of the two survivors of nuclear holocaust, and the other is arguably half-crazy.
  • Hammer and Sickle Removed for Your Protection: The enemy in the war is never named. Given the time the book was written, it was probably intended to be the Soviet Union, but a modern reader might be equally tempted to assume modern Russia, China, or even North Korea.
  • Hand Wave: Why the valley has survived the fallout is never really explained.
  • Hazmat Suit: The prototype anti-radiation suit; unfortunately Loomis only had time to make one before nuclear war broke out.
  • Hidden Supplies: Ann stocks a cave with supplies when Loomis first arrives, just in case she needs to hide for an extended period of time. This comes in handy later. Unfortunately, Loomis later discovers the cave while Ann is away and burns everything.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Loomis greatly fears being alone, but it's his actions that drive Ann to leave. In the book he begs her not to go, in the 1984 film he begs her to come back someday. She quite reasonably points out that her leaving is entirely his fault.
  • Minor Living Alone: Ann, due to rather extreme circumstances.
  • The Namesake: When she was a little girl, Ann had a Bible ABC book in which A was for Adam, the first man, so she assumed Zachariah was the last man.
  • Parting-Words Regret: Sort of. Ann's last words to Loomis before she leaves for good are that he never even thanked her for taking care of him, something she thinks back on later as being "childish" of her.
  • Past Experience Nightmare: Both Loomis and Ann have them, though Loomis's tend to be much worse because of the events that caused his Sanity Slippage, as listed below. Ann's are simply the result of having lost her family and everyone she knew thanks to the war.
  • Pet the Dog: as Ann leaves the valley not only does Loomis ultimately let her go but tells her he saw birds in the distance, giving her the direction of possible other survivors.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Dog: After the nuclear fallout that killed the rest of her family, Ann's only companion in the valley is her dog Faro. She's forced to kill Faro once she realizes Mr. Loomis intends to use the dog to track her down.
  • Sanity Ball: Ann is definitely the only one holding this.
  • Sanity Slippage: This happened to Loomis long before he found the valley, thanks in part to the fact that he shot his friend and fellow survivor for wanting to take the suit and check on his almost certainly dead family.
  • Shoot the Dog: Ann kills Faro to prevent Mr. Loomis from using him to find her. She can't bring herself to literally shoot the dog, though, and instead tricks him into entering the same contaminated creek that made Mr. Loomis ill.
  • Sole Surviving Scientist: As far as anyone knows, Loomis is the last scientist left on earth.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Stalker with something, anyway; Loomis is awfully intent on catching Ann again, but it's implied that it's largely because he's such a control freak.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Ann is sixteen, and Loomis talks to her like she's even younger. He's not above trying to rape her, or even shooting her to prevent her from escaping.
  • World War III: It lasted approximately two weeks before everything died.