Teen Dystopias and Disasters: Susan Beth Pfeffer’s “The Dead and the Gone” and more

For a more specific review of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s This World We Live In, see my earlier blog post.

Susan Beth Pfeffer’s trilogy of post-apocalyptic young adult novels are a fun and fascinating read.  The Dead and the Gone is the second book in the trilogy, but stands alone as its own story as well.  It has a different protagonist and setting than the other two books in the trilogy.  While Life As We Knew It and This World We Live In focus on Miranda Evans in her semi-rural home in Howell, Pennsylvania (and are written in the first-person diary-style), The Dead and the Gone focuses on Alex Morales in Manhattan.  Because there are more people in this setting, there is a lot more death and destruction.  Overall, this book is much darker than its counterparts, although the latter part of the third book is also quite dark and mature. I really enjoyed this series (and this book in particular) because Pfeffer writes characters that are believable.  These people are not extraordinary.  There very ordinariness makes the story all that more eerie.  They survive mostly through luck and grace.  Yes, they are resourceful, but there is nothing to indicate that other characters were not resourceful as well, and they still die.  Pfeffer even includes disease as one of the results of the disaster.  While one can safely escape from an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, volcano, and extreme climate change, it is awfully hard to successfully have one’s characters survive disease without stretching the realm of believability.  However, Pfeffer pulls this off.  Because he is the protagonist, we know that Alex will survive until the last page at the least.  The author has created a world where anyone else can die, no matter how prepared, resourceful, smart, beautiful, sweet, or saintly that they are.

What is different between this trilogy and a lot of teen dystopian novels is that the disaster is not a man-made one.  Pfeffer is writing about teens, but the disaster equally affects adults and children.  It is also an apocalyptic disaster, not a local one, which is a frequent type of tale for young adult audiences. There is nowhere for anyone to escape to in The Dead and the Gone that is not affected by the moon moving closer to Earth!  In some ways, Pfeffer painted herself into a corner by this, but her storytelling is undaunted.  However, her setting is not one conducive to either happy endings or to a didactic tale.  This disaster is not humanity’s fault at all, so she is not sending an environmental message or an anti-totalitarian message through her writing.  Her story is a mere survival story.  It is also very fatalistic.  No plucky teens are going to overthrow the system here!  Nor are they going to save everybody.  Alex tries, and it doesn’t have pretty results.

What this book series and other teen dystopian novels do have in common is that they are a metaphor for how young people navigate through life from childhood to adulthood.  In modern times, we have created the “teenager” that is neither child (except under the law) nor adult (unless they break the law).  Childhood is a time of innocence, or at least being controlled.  A child is happy to have their parents fix things, not worry about money or necessities, and be taken care of.  They might resent this at the time, but even when a seven-year-old decides to run away from home, they are most likely to decide to come home by the time they get to the bus stop.  It is even a running joke for a mom to send her upset child off with a sweater, map, and toothbrush, fully expecting that they will be home by dinner.  Meanwhile, an adult may still need help, but is fully expected to be independent and expects respect in return.  Being an adult is entirely a state of mind, although adulthood manifests itself in maturity, self-sufficiency, and capability.  One doesn’t magically become an adult on one’s eighteenth birthday.

In between childhood and adulthood, a person finds themself and their place in life.  However, the modern North American teenager is faced with a regimented expected lifestyle: middle school, high school, maybe college/university, part-time jobs, after-school activities that actually mean something, etc.  (In childhood, recreational sports are just that — in adolescence, it suddenly matters whether or not you can play!)  High school alone has its own set of rules and norms, and is an insular world of teenagers.  Adolescence is also a time when one often breaks away from one’s family and comes to rely on friends, although this is something of great debate.  It is quite common for modern teens to associate with other teens and not adults.  They end up in a parallel universe.

Dystopian fiction thus pulls the main characters, and by extension the reader, from their comfortable existence.  This comfortable existence varies: it could be not realising what’s wrong with your dystopian world, a pre-disaster/war lifestyle, or simply one’s life before one is called to embark on a quest.  A lot of dystopian literature involves some sort of quest on the part of the protagonist, be it one for survival or to overthrow a regime.  This comfortable existence is like childhood.  Meanwhile, the end result of the novel is like adulthood: the protagonist has come to terms with him- or herself, and has figured out how they fit into their world such as it is.  In between is a quest of some kind.

This is what I like about Susan Beth Pfeffer’s trilogy as well.  The quest (which is one of survival) is undertaken by all of the characters, but it particularly affects the teenage characters.  The children are young enough that this new world is what they will be familiar with; the adults have “lived their life” and are more pragmatic.  The teenagers, on the other hand, were only beginning to figure out their place in life before the disaster, and are still trying to figure it out afterwards.  They know that they have been cheated out of the future that they had been training for.  This theme is more prevalent in This World We Live In.

A lot of dystopian fiction for teens calls for teenagers to reject the materialistic teen life, at least on the surface.  Another — somewhat contradictory — theme is fighting to keep your individuality or your childhood freedom.  Undoubtedly, some of these books are written by adult writers who are nostalgic for a time in their life when anything was possible, and they could do anything with their lives.

And yet The Dead and the Gone is an interesting study for all ages.  How many adults would be terrified at the thought of being a lone teenager with younger siblings relying on you in the midst of a worldwide disaster?  This story would not be much different if the main character was older, but being suddenly orphaned at seventeen is especially traumatic when one likens it to many seventeen-year-olds leaving home for the first time.  Yes, your parents are most likely still alive and you still can go see them on weekends, but it’s a far cry from childhood.

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