Title: the dead and the gone
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Genre: Young Adult, Speculative Fiction
Stand alone or series: Book 2 of the ‘Moon Crush’ trilogy, but can be read as a stand alone novel. the dead and the gone is the companion novel to book 1 of the trilogy, Life As We Knew It and details the same catastrophic events with different characters, from a different perspective. Book 3, This World We Live In will be a direct sequel to both companion books and is to be released in 2010.
Why did I read this book: I loved the first book so much that I immediately combed all my local bookstores for the dead and the gone. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It enthralled and devastated readers with its brutal but hopeful look at an apocalyptic event–an asteroid hitting the moon, setting off a tailspin of horrific climate changes. Now this harrowing companion novel examines the same events as they unfold in New York City, revealed through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican Alex Morales. When Alex’s parents disappear in the aftermath of tidal waves, he must care for his two younger sisters, even as Manhattan becomes a deadly wasteland, and food and aid dwindle.
With haunting themes of family, faith, personal change, and courage, this powerful new novel explores how a young man takes on unimaginable responsibilities.
I loved Life As We Knew It–it is easily one of the best books I have read in 2008 (you can read that review HERE). So it goes without saying that when I discovered its sister book the dead and the gone had been released earlier this year, I wasted no time getting my hands on a copy, eager to see how it would compare.
I was not disappointed.
the dead and the gone follows seventeen-year-old Alex Morales on the eve of the disaster. A smart, driven young man of Puerto Rican descent, Alex spends his evenings working for extra money at the local pizza parlor in New York City. When he’s done for the night, he closes up shop and returns to his family’s apartment building, where his father is landlord. Alex’s two younger sisters, fourteen-year-old Brianna and twelve-year-old Julie, are already at home waiting for him. Their father is in Puerto Rico for their grandmother’s funeral, and their mother is working a late emergency shift at a hospital in Queens. The only other member of the Morales immediate family is the eldest son, Carlos, who is enlisted in the marines. Thus Alex, Bri and Julie are settling down for bed when their electricity goes out, though not atypical for their neck of the woods in a hot New York summer. They learn that the asteroid that hit the moon that evening has had some unpredicted consequences, but they are certain that the astronomers and scientists will figure out how to get the moon back in place. With that, they all go to sleep. The next morning however, brings some terrible changes for Alex and his sisters. They learn about the tidal waves that obliterated islands and coastal cities, and that the city subways were flooded, killing thousands instantly. They learn that Queens and Manhattan are submerged. And they learn that there is no way to know if their mother and father are ok, or even if they are alive. Thus begins the dead and the gone, as Alex struggles to make the right decisions to protect himself and his two younger sisters in a dying city.
the dead and the gone is a completely different animal from Life As We Knew It–it begins with a literal bang, dispensing with any preliminaries as the first chapter opens with the asteroid’s devastating impact on the moon. the dead and the gone also marks a change in characters and narrative style. While LAWKI is written in the first person point of view of the protagonist Miranda in the form of her diary entries, tdatg is narrated strictly in the third person limited point of view, with insight to Alex’s thoughts and perspectives. One of the (negligible) quibbles I had with the first book was how Miranda was very much an observer to the apocalyptic events of the ‘moon crush’. She remains passive (at least initially) as her mother and older brother make the tough, life-saving decisions to keep the family alive. In this companion book, however, Alex–though only a year older than Miranda–is thrust into the leadership role, needing to keep his younger sisters safe.
The most important difference, however, is that of location. Whereas the first book took place in rural Pennsylvania (far fewer residents, more open land and small towns), Alex and his sisters are alone in one of the largest, toughest cities in the world. The significance of this location change is felt almost immediately, and threads through the entire novel. When Alex awakens the morning after the asteroid strike, he and his sisters do not have the miraculous foresight of Miranda’s mother–nor do they have the financial security Miranda’s family did. Instead, Alex and sisters Bri and Julie have only what is in their cupboards, and what they have been given from their aunt and uncle’s bodega. They get a free lunch at their respective schools and are forced to live meal to meal, standing in food ration lines, braving riots and other predators, scrounging for anything left behind in apartments that are later deserted. And that’s just the tip of Alex’s worries as the weather turns cold, ashy and permanently gray with the worldwide volcanic eruptions caused by the moon’s new proximity to Earth, spewing ash into the atmosphere and blocking out the sun indefinitely.
One of the largest worries I had coming into this book concerned predictability. The novelty of discovering what happens with the moon pushed closer to the Earth had already been exhausted in Life As We Knew It, and I was concerned that reading the same events again could be tedious. Thank goodness, this was not the case. While Life As We Knew It terrifies, keeping readers on the edge of their seats wondering what can happen next, in the dead and the gone it is not so much about what happens, as it is how these young, ill-prepared characters will get through each disaster. Even though I knew what was coming next–subzero temperatures, ashy skies, epidemics–the way things manifest in New York is different than the way they did in rural Pennsylvania and each chain reaction event is detailed flawlessly and uniquely (the way Julie’s school’s vegetable garden dies from an early frost, or Bri’s severe adult onset asthma, for example).
Many reviews I’ve seen (predominantly on amazon) detract from this novel because it is a whole lot darker, more terrifying and more bleak than Life As We Knew It. To be honest, this is to be expected–in a large, metropolitan area, with no adults to look after them, you best believe that Alex does anything in his power to keep his family alive. As New York is a major city with a large population (not to mention home of many influential rich folks and politicians) it is kept on life support with bursts of electricity and food rations. The ration lines begin in the city far before they did in LAWKI, and with those long lines come riots, violence, and desperation–at least initially, while there are still enough people alive and strong enough to put up a fight. As the fallout from the moon’s proximity wears on, however, the higher population of NYC translates to more rotting corpses, more suicides, more rats in the streets. There’s a black market that arises out of necessity, and Alex takes to ‘body fishing’–stripping the recently dead of their swag, to trade in for cans of food or other items.
And, there is the titled issue of the ‘gone’. In the initial asteroid strike, the subways of New York flooded, killing thousands almost instantly, along with those who were wiped out on the coast lines by repeated tidal waves. Alex and his sisters have no idea what has happened to their parents–if they are alive, injured, or dead. They, along with thousands of others, have simply disappeared. This is a huge theme in the book–Alex’s youngest sister Julie is constantly terrified that Alex will disappear without her, whereas Bri desperately clings to her belief that their parents are still alive, refusing to abandon their family apartment. There’s a haunting scene where Alex takes a trip to Yankee Stadium to examine the some of the bodies pulled out of the subway, looking for his mother. It’s heartbreaking, gut wrenching, and yet feels so incredibly realistic. If I had thought that Ms. Pfeffer was pulling punches in LAWKI, the gloves came off here in the dead and the gone.
So far as characters go, Alex is a far different protagonist than Miranda. Most obviously, he’s a teenage boy versus Miranda’s teenage girl. But he’s also shaped by his heritage as a Puerto Rican, and his family’s religious beliefs as devout Catholics (more on that in a bit). He’s driven and intelligent, having won a scholarship to one of the most prestigious private Catholic schools in the city, and aspires to go to Georgetown after his senior year. More than that, Alex always has something to prove (that he is as good as his older brother, that he can beat his top rival in school), and ultimately it all boils down to his own insecurities: how he is terrified each decision he makes for his sisters could mean their death. I am in complete awe of Ms. Pfeffer’s characterizations and relationships–just as Miranda felt incredibly genuine as a teenage girl in the first book, Alex is heartbreakingly alive and real here. His struggles as the oldest sibling (with Carlos out of the picture), his love-hate relationship with his youngest sister Julie, his attempts to stay sane as the world falls apart around him–it’s all incredibly genuine. All of these characters and their fates had me near tears at certain parts of the book. Once again, I found myself fully invested in Alex’s story and those of each character in this novel.
Another major facet to the characters and plot of this novel is faith and the church. Alex and his sisters are driven in large part due to their faith, however Alex and youngest sister Julie question God, while Brianna’s faith never wavers. The church plays a pivotal role in relief efforts, and in the lives of each of the Morales members. Alex’s school remains open for the entire year, throughout the summer and winter, offering a free lunch to anyone who still attends provided they perform a specific task before going to classes in the morning (no chores, no lunch). Similarly, the family’s local church provides information as relayed through the diocese, and remains holding regular mass, even as the congregation dwindles and the weather turns unbearably cold. It’s an interesting contrast from the first book, where a more zealous, crazed look at religion is portrayed. I should say that I am not religious at all and am extremely wary when reading books that feature faith so predominantly (usually for fear of having some unsavory religious message rammed down my throat)–but I can assure any readers who may be feeling tentative towards the dead and the gone that the religion aspect is handled excellently. Alex’s faith is a part of who he is as a character, and no religious/spiritual redemption lessons are beaten over readers’ heads–which I might add is simply testament to Ms. Pfeffer’s brilliant characterizations, yet again.
On one final note, I have read some criticisms for the ending of this book for being too abrupt, Alex having struggled so long and so hard to get his sisters to safety, but I have no problems with it (besides the fact that I’m greedy and want more, that is). There are no rainbows and sparkles, no miraculous fixes to the devastation of civilization here–but despite the hefty tragedy, the book ends with hope. And I can rest assured that Alex’s (and Miranda’s) story will be continued with This World We Live In!
Notable Quotes/Parts: One exchange between Bri, Julie, and Alex:
“Couldn’t we use the ticket to get food instead?” Bri asked. “Real food. Lots of it. That way we wouldn’t have to leave New York.”
“I want to use it to get out,” Julie said. “It’s my ticket. I’m the one who took it in the first place and it was in my pile and I get to say what we do with it.”
“But what will Mami and Papi think if we’re not here?” Bri asked. “Or Carlos? How will they find us if we leave?”
“It’s been six months!” Julie shouted. “They’re dead. And Carlos might as well be. I’m not going to stick around here and die waiting for them to come back. Stay here if you want, but I’m going!”
Bri began to cough.
“Where’s the inhaler?” Alex asked, looking around the living room for it.
“Bedroom.” Bri gasped.
Alex raced into the bedroom and grabbed the inhaler from Bri’s night table. “You’re supposed to carry this with you all the time!” he shouted, resisting the temptation to fling it at her.
Bri took a deep puff. Her coughing subsided. “Sorry,” she whispered. “Forgot.”
“You can’t forget,” Alex said. “Forgetting can kill you. What if you had an attack and we weren’t here?”
Bri began to cry.
“Happy birthday, Papi.” Julie muttered.
“That does it!” Alex yelled. “Julie, go to your room, right now.”
“Why?” Julie asked. “It isn’t my fault Bri’s crazy.”
“Now,” Alex said, trying to keep his rage under control. “Before I pick you up and throw you in there.”
“I’m using the ticket to get out,” she said. “I don’t care what you and Bri do. It’s my ticket and I hate it here.”
“Julie, it’s not that simple,” Alex said.
“It is,” she replied. “People leave all the time. All my friends are gone. Most of the sisters are gone. We’re the only ones stupid enough to be here.”
“We’re not stupid,” he said.
“Bri is,” Julie said.
“Don’t say that,” Alex snapped. “Her faith is stronger than yours. Maybe you’re the stupid one.”
Julie looked Alex straight in the eye. “Tell me Mami and Papi are still alive,” she said. “Tell me that’s what you really think.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said. “It doesn’t even matter what Bri thinks. What matters is Bri can’t walk more than five blocks without having an asthma attack and you’re thirteen years old and you can’t look out for yourself.”
“I could if I had to,” Julie said.
Alex shook his head. “You can’t,” he said. “I can’t go off with you and leave Bri behind. And I can’t stay behind with Bri and let you go off on your own.” He left unsaid the idea of his deserting his sisters while he escaped.
Additional Thoughts: Three things.
First, as promised, here are a few more End of the World/dystopian type stories for the apocalypse/post-apocalypse fan! There are the classics, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (which I’m sure some will remember from English class in middle and high school!) and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, both dealing with nuclear holocaust. For Young Adult novels in the dystopian, post-apocalypse vein, there’s Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles (the series has been reprinted by Penguin this month–and the long awaited fifth book is finally in publication!), Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games or Neil Shusterman’s Unwind (these are all post-apocalypse, however). Other mentions: The Postman (ignore the movie, save your eyes the torture), Children of Men (I actually liked this movie a lot as well as the book, give both a go), The Dark Tower books (I am calling them post-apocalyptic since the majority of the story takes place in worlds that have been left behind) and Liberation (which I haven’t read yet but really want to). Any other suggestions?
Second, on Monday there was a special on the Discovery Channel about what would happen in a two degree warmer world–showing the flooding of New York city, storm fronts, etc. Not nearly as catastrophic as the events in these novels, but certainly lends some perspective to how something as small as a temperature increase in two degrees can lead to drastic, climatological effects worldwide.
Finally, for more on Susan Beth Pfeffer and her Moon Crush books, make sure to check out her blog HERE. Even cooler, she has a blog up concerning her progress and plot ideas for This World We Live In HERE (warning, spoilers for the first two books abound!). **EDIT: Rats, looks like book 3 won’t be out until Spring 2010.**
Verdict: the dead and the gone is a harrowing companion book, and a novel I loved just as much as the first, if in a completely different way. A caveat–this is not a book for the faint of heart. This novel is far darker than its predecessor. There is more bleakness here, and perhaps this isn’t to the tastes of some readers–but despite the tragedy, hope remains. I highly recommend both novels in the series. Again, one of my favorite reads of the year.
Rating: 9 Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Knights of the Cornerstone by James P. Blaylock