Z for Zachariah
Robert C. O’Brien
Contributed by Larisa Brooke

Z for Zachariah, by Robert O’Brien, has mainly received warm reviews since its publication in 1974. Some of the earliest reviews specifically praised the writing style of the book which explores a mature and serious theme of a post-atomic war. Nonetheless, O’Brien was able to present this in a readable style suited for a younger audience. In fact, the Masterworks of Children Literature (1983) picked Z for Zachariah as one of the two stories which “will serve as exemplars of twentieth-century changes in childhood and children’s books”.  The other book is the much acclaimed Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery and published in 1908.  According to a review by the English Journal (1980), O’Brien succeeded by proving that young adult novelists could use a science-fiction format to look at profound social and personal issues (Boris Masis, n.d). Peter Ackroyd’s (1975) review for The Spectator, under the title ‘The Good and Bad’, hailed O’Brien’s style: “…at this level of competence, there ceases to be such an entity as the ‘children’s novel’, to be opposed to the ‘adult novel’…”. He goes on to state that it lacks faux-naïve and contains imaginative strength without omitting the gripping nature of adventure. Thus, the book strays away from the confines of a children’s novel and seats comfortably as adult literature (Boris Masis, n.d). More recently, Hall (2007), who read Z for Zachariah twice — first time as a child and again in her adulthood, agrees that the book is neither childish nor one that fully embraces adult style.

The recent adaptation of Z for Zachariah into a major film by the same title has popularized the book even further and helped stir renewed interest. Most positive current reviews center on the recurrent theme of female heroism, which resonates with the present momentum around women empowerment issues. O’Brien gives readers a formidable hero that girls and women can identify with or even aspire to be. Downham (2016), in her review, explains how the novel gave her a life-long belief in the strength of girls and women, and, crucially, the prototype for her own fictional heroines. Similarly, Hall’s assessment focused on the main character who she described as the role model for female self-sufficiency and heroism. She explained that O’Brien does well in highlighting Ann’s choices and triumphs; his depiction of how a 16-year-old views the world without any filters is particularly distinctive.

Interestingly, the most powerful criticism of the book is connected to the same style for which it is acclaimed for. Hall (2007) posits that the themes could be considered too adult. She elaborates, “…its realism is too shocking and upsetting: the end of the world; the end of childhood; despotism; violence against women. At what age is this material suitable? Should schools stock it, parents endorse it?” Still, many readers approve that the combination of a survival story and science-fiction provides a wonderful exploration of youth and middle age, male and female, independence and control (Boris Masis, n.d).

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