REVIEW: the dead and the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Dear Ms. Pfeffer,
Your previous novel, Life As We Knew It, completely blew me away. Your vision of earth overcome by a disrupted climate affected me in a way that hasn’t happened in a very long time. And since I can’t get enough of apocalyptic settings, no matter the genre, I was beside myself when excitement when I heard you were writing a companion novel.
The premise of both Life As We Knew It and the dead and the gone is deceptively simple. An asteroid crashes into the moon but instead of being the simple astronomical event previously predicted, the larger-than-expected asteroid knocks the moon out of its orbit. It doesn’t crash into earth or anything so dramatic; it just shifts the orbit closer. But sometimes the simplest things can have the most disastrous results. A closer lunar orbit means a stronger gravitational pull, which leads to tsunamis and volcanic eruptions in places where tsunamis and volcanic eruptions typically don’t occur, in addition to those places where they do.
And those are just the natural disasters. Humankind is very good at creating its own brand of disaster, and this comes in the form of widespread panic. Gas, food, and supplies are all soon at a premium and it readily becomes apparent that people become far less than civilized when survival is at stake. Not that I blame them.
the dead and the gone follows Alex Morales, a 17-year-old student who attends a New York City Catholic high school. Coming from a poor, Puerto Rican family, Alex is used to working hard for what he wants, and what he wants is to succeed. But his carefully laid plans for senior year and college are destroyed when an asteroid crashes into the moon. At first he dismisses it as an astronomical novelty and continues to do so even when news brings word of panic and the moon’s new, closer orbit. After all, he has other, more immediate, problems he needs to worry about.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t last for long. The tsunamis caused by the closer lunar orbit hit close to home. Alex loses contact with his father, who’s in Puerto Rico for his grandmother’s funeral. His mother, a nurse, has yet to come home. He’d have no specific reason to worry if it weren’t the fact his father’s small hometown is situated on the Puerto Rican coast which was devastated by tsunamis and the New York City subway tunnels flooded around the time his mother should have been on her way home. Fearing the worst, now Alex not only has to take care of himself but his two younger sisters, Brianna and Julie, as well.
As I mentioned, Life As We Knew It wowed me. Never has a book so made me want to rush out to the store to buy emergency supplies in case of a world-ending event. Even the occasional warnings and alert levels announced by the U.S. government have never done that. So you could say I went into this book with very high expectations. Maybe I shouldn’t have. In some respects, I’m a little let down.
Don’t get me wrong. the dead and the gone is a good book. I enjoyed following Alex’s trials and travails as he struggles to survive in a wrecked New York City and I liked watching how he matures through those obstacles. He has to worry about his sisters and their welfare; where their next meal is coming from; and more importantly, how they’re going to stay together and out of social services’ eye when they’re all minors. All while he tries to keep his remaining family together when hopes of his parents coming back alive begin to die.
Unlike its predecessor, however, not once did this book keep me on the edge of my seat. It might be because while the two books take place concurrently, real time has passed in between for this reader. I already know what disasters happen on a global scale. The tidal waves, the volcanic eruptions, the layer of ash blocking out the sun, the flu epidemic. I knew these things were going to happen and I think that really affected how I processed this book. It wasn’t a matter of what happens next as much as it was a matter of how are they going to deal with this.
Another difference is that while Life As We Knew It was written in diary format, the dead and the gone is written in third-person point of view. I like both perspectives equally but the third-person narrative here didn’t affect me on an emotional level like Life As We Knew It‘s diary format did. Other readers may feel differently, especially those who dislike first person point of views and epistolary formats. But for me, the third person point of view distanced me from what was happening to Alex and in the end, detracted a bit from my ultimate enjoyment of the novel.
One major difference between this book and its predecessor that I did like, however, was that unlike Miranda, Alex is the one placed in a position of responsibility and authority. Without his parents, he’s the oldest in the family. Without his father, he’s the man of the family. So while he’s always taken on leadership roles during his academic career, he learns for the first time what being a leader in the real world is really like and that sometimes you can’t have what you want because life gets in the way and you can’t do anything about it. That what makes you strong is how you cope, adapt, and continue on with your life.
Despite some similarities, I did like how we saw another side of the food handout lines (as well as the chaotic aftermath) and the flu epidemic. The urban landscape of the dead and the gone is very different from the previous novel’s rural setting and I think the differences are portrayed well and used to great effect. But I think readers who expect another Life As We Knew It might be a little disappointed. Those who haven’t read the other, however, might find Alex’s tale as harrowing and terrifying as I found Miranda’s. B