Survival of the Fittest

Reading dystopian novels during a pandemic? Maybe that’s the last thing you’d want to do right now, or maybe you find courage and inspiration in reading about how people survive harrowing situations. Dystopian is defined in the Oxford Dictionary:

relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice

Personally, I love survival stories of all kinds, and a favorite book of 2020 renewed my interest in the genre.

“I love building worlds – I think it’s one of my favorite parts of writing.” So says author Diane Cook, author of The New Wilderness. Cook certainly succeeded in building a fascinating world and a gripping story about survival, sacrifice, and relationships challenged by this tough world. I was thrilled to find out the book was a finalist for The Booker Prize. (The prize was awarded to another book, Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart.) I agree completely with what Roxana Gay says about Cook’s debut novel “I was entirely engrossed in this novel. I didn’t want to leave it…” Learn more about the book by watching this video.

What is it about The New Wilderness that really stuck with me? I checked Novelist (featured in this blog post) to see how they describe it:

Genre: Dystopian fiction; Literary fiction; Multiple perspectives
Character: Complex
Storyline: issue-oriented
Tone: Darkly humorous; Suspenseful; Thought-provoking
Writing style: Compelling; Descriptive

If these descriptors sound good to you, take a look at these dystopian/survival favorites of mine from over the years. All of these titles, like The New Wilderness, left a lasting memory in my mind of their worlds.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood must be at the top of the list because it sparked my fascination with this genre (plus Atwood is just amazing overall). In the Republic of Gilead, male dominance has returned with a vengeance and women are relegated to a handful of truly horrible roles from Commanders’ wives to colony slaves. Don’t miss the Hulu series, which you can check out from the library!

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The world has been devastated by a pandemic, and outdoorsman Hig is surviving in an abandoned airport. He loves his dog, misses his wife, and has conversations with his weapons hoarding neighbor, while fighting off marauding bands of desperate savages. He also occasionally takes his small plane out to search for more survivors, and one day hears a voice on the radio. Library Journal describes the book: “In spare, poetic prose, [Heller] portrays a soaring spirit of hope that triumphs over heartbreak, trauma, and insurmountable struggles.”

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag is another climate change related book in which the ice caps have melted, raising the sea level so high that only mountains are left above water. Most of life is spent traveling by boat, trying to find enough to eat, and hoping to find some place on land not under the control of ruthless gangs of pirate types. Myra and her 7 year old daughter, barely making a living by fishing, hear a rumor that Myra’s oldest daughter, stolen by her ex and presumed dead, may be living in an encampment in the far north. The two embark on a perilous journey. Booklist describes it thus: “Anchored by a complicated, compelling heroine, this gripping, speculative, high-seas adventure is impossible to put down.”

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the first in a four part young adult series which, despite being published 14 years ago, stays with me to this day. The moon has been knocked off course by a meteor and an extreme winter sets in. As the situation gets more and more dire, 16 year old Miranda and her family tries everything they can think of to stay alive. Publisher’s Weekly wrote in 2006: “…readers will find it absorbing from first page to last. This survival tale…celebrates the fortitude and resourcefulness of human beings during critical times.”

Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
The California drought turns the landscape into mountains of sand, and a mass exodus ensues, with only a few hearty, pioneering types left behind. Former model Luz and AWOL Ray are squatting in an abandoned mansion when they encounter a strange little orphan girl. They take to the hills in search of a safer place to raise her. BookList describes their trek: “Their journey across the vast, ever-changing dunes is cosmic and terrifying as Watkins conjures eerily beautiful and deadly sandscapes and a cult leader’s renegade colony.”

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, does not fit perfectly into this genre, but definitely involves survival. Eight year old Peggy has been taken to the woods by her survivalist dad who claims the world has ended and they are the only two people left. Library Journal, in its Starred Review of the book concludes, “Though not always easy reading, Fuller’s emotionally intense novel comes to an unexpected but rewarding conclusion. Don’t let this gripping story pass you by.”

But this is just a beginning – there are so many other good dystopian and survival books out there. Our librarians have created a few collections you may enjoy: If You Liked The Handmaid’s Tale, and Pandemic Apocalypse Fiction. If you prefer nonfiction, check out this list of true survival stories.

It’s the End of the World or Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

ourendlessnumbereddaysThis was one messed up novel. If I were in a group of people and we were standing around talking about this book I would be the one raising my eyebrows, shoving another cocktail weenie in my mouth and shouting “Wasn’t that the most messed up book ever?”

Yeah, because that’s what I do. I go to parties where there are mini hotdogs, multi-colored Chinese lanterns, some hipster crap music playing in the background and me standing in a group of people talking about life. You don’t know me at all, do you? The only way you could get me to one of those parties would be:

1) Horse tranquilizers

2) Promise me an endless supply of mini hotdogs and my own bathroom; I’m not 20 anymore. My stomach doesn’t handle whatever organ meat hotdogs are made from anymore.

3) Promise me I can go through the pockets of all the coats piled on a bed. And keep what I find.

My best friend recommended Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days to me. She did her own eyebrow raising thing and cryptically said “The ending is not what you’re expecting. At all.” So when I finished it, I texted her first, demanding that my questions be answered. And did she agree that this was one messed up novel?

Indeed, she agreed. It is one screwed up novel.

And I’m still puzzled about some of the bizarre things that went on in this book. I mean, puzzled to the point where I’m writing this sentence and thinking ‘What did that character mean by that?’ But you know the best part? The screwed uppedness (tell Webster I want this new word in his next dictionary edition) of this book doesn’t hit all at once. It unfolds like a quiet diabolical storm. You’re reading along and thinking ‘Huh, that’s weird. Hmmm…what’s going on?’ and then about 45 pages away from the ending you look up from reading and go ‘Shut the front door! What the frig is going on????!!!’

Here. Let me sell it to you.

It’s 1976 London and 8-year-old Peggy Hillcoat’s father is part of a group of men who are survivalists (yeah, I didn’t know England had them either). Peggy likes to listen to them but her mother, Ute, can’t stand them. Ute was a famous German classical pianist in her youth and spends most of her days like most former uppity musicians: looking at pictures of ‘Way Back When’, playing mournful elegies on the piano and carrying on as if she’s still the bomb.

Peggy’s father James and an American survivalist named Oliver grow close. I didn’t like this Oliver dude from the beginning. He’s not evil or anything. He’s just…annoying. Like ‘I’d really like to punch you in the face’ annoying. Oliver likes to egg James on. James, it turns out, is kind of an unstable fanatic but you can’t really tell which way he’s going yet: is he a fanatic like me with Doctor Who or is he a fanatic with a homemade bomb in a shoe box in the pantry behind the box of instant potatoes?

Ute goes off to Germany to play a gig for a few weeks leaving Peggy and James on their own. They set up a tent at the end of the garden, don’t bathe for days and become wild creatures. So one day James just kind of snaps and says “We’re going on an adventure. Pack some stuff. Let’s go.”

And on an adventure they do go, all the way to a tiny ramshackle cabin in the middle of nowhere. Really nowhere. I’m talking the nearest town is a five-day walk. Carved on the underside of a table in the cabin is the name Rueben. A mysterious name in a mysterious place. It’s all fun at first, hunting and gathering, making the small cabin into their own. But the hot summer wears on and Peggy starts to miss her mother and her home. She misses her best friend and school. Her dad starts showing signs of a complete mental breakdown. He’s good at this survivalist thing but the dude cannot cope with everyday life. He runs into the cabin one day and tells Peggy that the world is gone. The world ended and they are the last two people alive. And damn, she’s eight years old so she believes him.

For the next eight years it is as if they are the last two people alive.

And then someone comes out of the forest.