Mullin, Mike. (2014). Sunrise. Terre Haute, IN : Tanglewood Press. 466 pgs. [3rd in the Ashfall trilogy]
The final installment of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall trilogy is by far the most gruesome and most chronologically-long of the story, but it is also the most optimistic. Sunrise continues the story of Alex, Darla, and their family, friends, and neighbours in the aftermath of a Yellowstone volcanic eruption. Picking up from the previous story, it has been nearly a year since the catastrophe and the town of Warren is at war for its survival with the town of Stockton. Spanning the next three years, Alex grows into a man and despite his youth, he finds himself the leader of a new community that struggles to establish itself and survive amidst famine, yearlong winter, and anarchy. Themes of hope, love, community, and leadership are prevalent. Despite plenty of gore and violence, this book is a testament to the author’s faith in humanity’s goodness. It is written with young adult readers in mind, but this trilogy is fascinating for older audiences as well. Recommended for ages 13 and older.
In a post-apocalyptic story, there is a delicate balance of shock and hope. Some stories keep the hope to a minimum and prefer to dwell on the shock-worthy elements: the disaster, violence, anarchy, devastation, and despair that accompanies any major unsettling event – be it war, earthquake, volcano, or power outage. The story can be as pessimistic or as optimistic as the author wants or believes. However, too much focus on destruction can be off-putting for the reader, while too much focus on hope and rebuilding can lead to accusations of not taking the story seriously enough.
It is a common myth that humans will resort to animalistic violence in the face of disaster. Evidence from the real world is far to the contrary: in natural disasters, neighbours help each other, even to their own detriment in some cases; in war, the usual reason for treating fellow humans inhumanely lies in mistrust and propaganda. As long as we recognise the humanity in our fellow human being, we are far more likely to want to help them, not hurt them.
Luckily, Mike Mullin explores both sides of this myth in Sunrise (as well as in the previous books in the trilogy). The majority of the characters work together for their common survival, even as they argue on the details, or they work to save their own group at the expense of another – albeit generally with the “noble” goal of sacrificing a few for the benefit of the many. Meanwhile, some individuals take power into their own hands and attempt to survive by using fear and oppression. These rogue individuals cause a lot of damage and sorrow, but they turn out to be just that – rogues.
Alex finds himself the leader of what is at first a small group consisting of his family as they build a new, secure, self-sufficient outpost. The town of Warren abandons them at the insistence of their deluded mayor, who dreams of a mythic rescue from the American government. Alex’s own mother prefers the mayor’s fantasy to her son’s reality. I was reminded of how the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire felt as the legions retreated in the face of foreign invaders. Most certainly, they dreamed of a Roman rescue long after such a possibility no longer existed. Mullin has created a realistic scenario wherein the United States has abandoned its Midwestern heartland to its fate (we never find out why, but readers are free to dream up as many disastrous scenarios as they want).
Alex and Darla’s outpost soon grows as more survivors hear of it. They face invasion, scavenge for supplies behind enemy lines, and seek to make contact with other outposts. As well, they face the usual pioneering struggles to feed themselves, secure their homes, and sort out their individual differences. In some ways, this book rushes through long stretches of time in favour of devoting most of the plot to adventures and battles. It could have spent more time on the psychological toll that building the community took on the survivors. However, even as an adult, I certainly grasped the seriousness of the situation and all of the “adventures and battles” are treated with utmost respect. They are violent not for violence’s sake, but because they would be in life.
Some reviews of this novel raise the question of how Alex could be respected as a leader by adults over twice or thrice his age. This issue is raised within the novel itself, both by adults and by Alex himself. However, when a person exhibits the ability to lead, to look after others, to organize, and takes responsibility for consequences, it does not matter how old they are – they have the air of authority about them. These qualities command respect. Furthermore, in a world thrown into chaos, experience has less weight than it otherwise would. Alex is no less familiar with the post-apocalyptic world than the mayor, and unlike the latter, he lacks the hubris and false reassurance of age.
Nonetheless, this story is not about one young man’s rise to power, but about how a community rises from the ashes. The people hold on to their old values – still pledging allegiance to the vanished United States of America – but they adapt them for their current circumstances. They resolve their differences. They become self-sufficient rather than relying on old items from before the eruption. They carry on with their lives – getting married, having children, building windmills, etc.
Sunrise is exactly that – a brilliant story of how one community might survive, transform, and grow after a disaster. Ultimately, it is about facing a new day, much as teenagers find themselves suddenly faced with the life-altering reality of leaving home and finishing high school. Entering the adult world is no volcanic eruption, but it is a shock nonetheless. Our modern culture has kept young people in the “child” category longer than they should be. A typical teenager goes from living in security with parents to living in a strange environment such as a dormitory or an apartment, having to take charge of their own affairs. Yet, it is also a hopeful time: a young person can discover their strengths, learn to fend for themselves, and forge their own identity, facing the new day as an adult.