When I was in grade 6, my homeroom teacher read the class a book that I think set me on the path of dystopian fiction fascination that persists to this day. The book was The Girl Who Owned a City, written by O.T. Nelson, and I have such vivid recollections of the story and the characters that I don’t even have to go to the Wikipedia page to give you the full synopsis, honestly. I won’t bore you with all the details (there are a lot, and I remember them ALL) and you can look it up if you like, but the basic premise is that a virus comes along killing everyone over the age of 12 – twelve! – and the kids are left to survive on their own.
In the story, Lisa, the main character is such a smart, badass girl, and I think the reason I continue to love this book so much is that I was around the same age as Lisa when Miss Budge read it to our class, and, at the time, I totally identified with her. I too had a little brother! I for sure was as smart as her! I could save my friends/the world too! Let a virus kill all the adults! I GOT this.
Except…I really don’t. As much as I am an excellent person to have around in a crisis, I would probably be the worst person to have around during some sort of global pandemic. Supplies? Well, um let’s hit the sushi bar at Fortinos, I guess? Looting? Hell yes, head to Sephora and get allllll the lipsticks! I mean really. I am not a survivalist AT ALL.
So I think this is why I love me some dystopian fiction, especially the kind written by and starring smart, badass women. Women who KNOW that you need water filtration stuff to survive. Women who understand First Aid and what to take from an outdoorsy kind of store so that you don’t die in the first three days. And it just so happens that I read two excellent examples just recently.
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison* follows the story of The Midwife, who manages to survive a deadly plague that kills most of the women and children of the world, and makes pregnancy and childbirth highly dangerous for both the woman and her baby. As a result, women are highly prized commodities, and you can imagine how that goes with men in charge. She journals her experiences as she travels often alone, occasionally with others, making camp and finding places to live and to offer her nursing/midwifery skills, attempting to keep herself and other women as safe as possible. The entire novel is fantastic, the characters are diverse and extremely well drawn, and I devoured the book within a couple of days. 10/10 for exciting survival skills tactics, I think this is one book I should probably keep on hand for the coming apocalypse so I can use it as a guide. What would The Midwife do?
Future Home of the Living God by Lousie Erdrich* has a different take on the end of the world, but Erdrich’s apocalypse is somehow creepier. In this story, evolution is reversing, and there is nothing science can do to stop it. 26-year old Cedar Songmaker is pregnant and on the run from the government – or whatever it’s called now – that is imprisoning pregnant women, often turned in by neighbours or family members. As is the case in times of crisis, little is known and what is known can’t always be trusted.
Erdrich has created a terrifying world, and like a lot of end-of-the-world fiction, it doesn’t even seem too far-fetched. Such is the state of our own world while we watch species vanish from the planet, while rights – reproductive and other – are being stripped (from women especially) and while resources continue to be depleted without a second thought from those in power.
It’s doubtful that these novels were written and intended to be survivalist manuals, but there you have it! As much as I am drawn into the story and the characters and their plight, there is a part of me that will always be excited for the “trip to the sporting goods store” scene in any apocalyptic fiction. Stocking up on weapons, (I can actually clean, load, and fire a rifle, so maybe I’m not so useless after all?) sleeping bags, water purification tablets and all that will always hold a special place in my heart, thanks to Miss Budge and her excellent choice of novel for our grade 6 class, nearly 40 years ago. She must have known what was coming.
*Meg Elison’s book was on Roxane Gay’s Tumblr as one of the best books she read last year, and Louise Erdrich’s was highlighted by Kate Harding in an article she wrote for Electric Literature. Your favourite authors can be great sources for book recommendations and what to read next!