Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In Times Like These: This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

"It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality." --Anne Frank, July, 1944.

Miranda is not a prisoner of political holocaust, but rather a victim of an astronomical catastrophe caused by a meteor strike on Earth's moon, throwing the natural order into an apocalypse of tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions which turn the land and sky into a ashen gray gloom.

In the third book in her series which began with the best-selling Life As We Knew It, award-winning author Susan Beth Pfeffer shows Miranda's family surviving, huddling through the long, cold nights in one room of their house, living on meagre foodstuff from the almost moribund government and what they can scavenge from the deserted houses in their depopulated area.

Approaching the anniversary of the catastrophe, Earth, cut off from sunlight, has become a wintry world where only the strong survive. Electricity is infrequent; firewood laboriously cut by Miranda and her brothers Matt and Jon provides only enough heat to keep them from freezing; and no one knows if Earth's stores of food will hold out until the ash clouds clear enough to grow more. Knowing that there may be no future for any of them, Miranda continues to write in her secret diary, confessing her anger, her despair, and her failing hope for a better life.

Into this lifeboat existence come others. Matt returns from a fishing expedition with Syl, whom he announces is now his wife. Then Miranda's father Hal reappears with his new wife Lisa and baby, his friend Charlie, and two teenagers, Alex and Julie (the main characters in the second book, The Dead and the Gone (The Last Survivors, Book 2,) a band of strangers drawn together into clan-like bonds of mutual support. Miranda is torn between relief at having her father with them and resentment against the newcomers who drain their meagre rations. Always hungry and cold, the two groups clash and yet begin to meld into a sort of union fueled by their mutual drive to survive.

Then on a foraging expedition, Alex and Miranda discover the attic cache of food of a dead survivalist, and the group begins to hope that they will make it into summer. Drawn together, Miranda and Alex begin to develop a love for each other, and as the deep cold of winter gives way to a chilly summer, hope begins to develop that they may have a life and a future together. Hope, that "thing with feathers," stirs in Miranda. She writes...

"No matter how awful I'd had it, I realized how lucky I was. Even now, in my freezing cold closet, the only light coming from my two flashlight pens, I do understand that, in spite of everything, I'm one of the lucky ones."

But nature is not done with them. A thunderstorm turns into a tornado which demolishes most of their supplies, destroys their homes, and brings about the death of Charlie and Julie. Realizing that they cannot survive where they are, the band decides to try to walk to a distant government "safe city" where they may find a way to survive together. Hastily they gather what they can to begin the journey, and Miranda makes the decision to leave her faithfully kept diary behind:

"This is the last time I'll write in my diaries. I'm choosing not to burn them. They're witness to my story, to all our stories. If I burn them, it's like denying that Mom ever lived, or Jon or Matt or Syl. Dad and Lisa, Gabriel, ... Charlie.



I can't deny them their stories just to protect mine. My story is told."

In an unthinkable world which is nevertheless made believable, Susan Beth Pfeffer's forthcoming This World We Live In (The Last Survivors, Book 3) (Harcourt, 2010) reveals the resilience of the human heart in characters forced to make choices, almost unimaginable in our current world, but choices that we know are no strangers to the human condition. In unspoken parallels to Anne Frank's diaries, Miranda's writings tell a story with echoes of the self-discovery, growth, and inextinguishable hope that are Anne Frank's legacy, and for the modern young adult reader, the The Last Survivors series has much to say about what it means to be human.

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