The Moon Crash Trilogy
By Susan Beth Pfeffer
By: Diane Singer|Published: September 13, 2011 1:42 PM
In 2006, Susan Beth Pfeffer published Life As We Knew It, the first book in her dystopian Moon Crash trilogy (also known as the Last Survivors trilogy). She completed the series with The Dead and The Gone (2008) and This World We Live In (2010). Critics have praised the books for their gritty realism; middle-school librarians across America have been recommending them to their preteen students; and the books have won numerous awards, including the American Library Association’s “Best Books” award for Life As We Knew It.
Frankly, I question why.
Having slogged my way through all three volumes, my first reaction is to describe Pfeffer’s trilogy as 897 pages of unrelenting gloom and doom. Yet, many kids -- including my 12-year-old granddaughter who recommended the books to me -- love these stories. So, to be fair, let me admit to some of the positive qualities I found in Pfeffer’s trilogy before I explain why I’d be wary of allowing younger teens or preteens to read them unaided.
Life As We Knew It is told in the form of journal entries by a 16-year-old girl named Miranda. Her parents are divorced, and her dad is remarried and living in another state. The story opens on May 7 with Miranda hearing the less-than-thrilling news that her father is expecting a child with his new wife, Lisa. In addition, Miranda is on the outs with her mother; her best friend is spending too much time at church; and her brother Matt is away at college.
All Miranda’s personal problems, however, soon pale by comparison to the worldwide catastrophe that occurs on May 18: An asteroid hits the moon, driving it closer to earth, and essentially ending “life as we knew it.” Billions die in the resulting earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, and unseasonably cold weather. All the natural disasters lead to a worldwide disruption of communication that makes it impossible for people to know what’s happened to their loved ones living elsewhere; to a breakdown in the supply chain, resulting in people starving to death; and to a “survival of the fittest” mindset consuming everyone.
Miranda’s mother, Laura, withdraws all her money in cash, and takes the family and their elderly neighbor (Mrs. Nesbitt) on a frantic spending spree to buy food, batteries, medicines, and anything else she thinks they’ll need to make it. She plants a garden (which fails to grow once the skies, saturated with volcanic ash, turn permanently grey) and, even before summer begins, she sends her sons out to start chopping wood for winter. Her practicality is admirable, as is her self-sacrificing choice to eat less so that her children will have more. Laura also tries to create as normal an environment as possible, forcing her kids to study their lessons long after schools have shut their doors. In the crisis, she doesn’t fall apart and she keeps her kids safe, focused, and sane -- showing qualities that I, as a mother, admire.
Not surprisingly, Miranda is depressed, angry, and scared, with occasional flashes of gratitude for being alive when so many others have died. On the one hand, she’s still a teenager who is annoyed at her mother, fights with her brothers, and resents her father’s absence (he and his new wife eventually rejoin Miranda’s family). On the other hand, she becomes an expert at scavenging -- a talent that helps keep her family alive as conditions grow ever more dire.
So, on the plus side, Life As We Knew It (along with its sequels) deals with how to survive when the unthinkable happens. For that reason, the books are worth reading because they force us to ask the tough questions: How well prepared are we to face such catastrophic changes? What practical skills do we have that would enable us to survive? What ethical standards will guide us when the world we know falls apart? What moral obligations do we have to those who are not family members or close friends?
Now for my reservations. First, the books are filled with death. In the country (books 1 and 3) and the city (book 2), piles of rotting, rat-chewed bodies abound. The scenes are gruesome, and likely to prove traumatizing for more sensitive children.
Second, Life As We Knew It betrays Pfeffer’s hostility to Christianity and conservatism. Miranda repeatedly writes about how much her mother hates Fox News and distrusts the incompetent president from Texas, whom she calls an “evil jerk.” While my 12-year-old granddaughter didn’t make the connection, as an adult I was furious at the not-so-subtle attempt to sway young readers toward hating conservatives and President Bush.
Furthermore, Miranda and her mother are presented throughout as intelligent agnostics, while two Christian characters in the first book are painted as mentally ill and corrupt. Miranda’s friend Megan is obviously suffering from religious psychosis, and the pastor of her church literally “feeds” off his sheep -- requiring them to give him food while they starve.
Evidently, readers of Life complained about Pfeffer’s negative portrayal of Christians in the first book, so she focused her second book, The Dead and The Gone, on a supposedly devout Catholic family -- Alex, Julie, and Briana -- living in New York City. I say “supposedly” because I found their expressions of faith shallow and unconvincing. The only positive aspect of religion in Book 2 was Pfeffer’s portrayal of the priests and nuns who selflessly serve their flocks for as long as they can, and then offer Alex and Julie a chance to leave the city and build a new life after Briana dies.
In the third book, when Pfeffer brings all her characters together, there are several references to some of the characters praying together; but even then, Pfeffer sends a mixed message about the value of faith. Miranda remains devoutly agnostic, and since she’s the maim character and narrator, her attitude has a tendency to drown out other points of view. Also, Alex, who is presented as a super-observant Catholic, seems to have no qualms about sleeping with Miranda. At best, the weakness of Pfeffer’s portrayal of Christianity may serve as a good talking point: Christian parents can use it to offer realistic and practical guidance on how their faith would help them and guide them in such terrible circumstances.
Finally, Pfeffer portrays euthanasia in a positive light. In the first book, their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Nesbitt, essentially allows herself to die, telling Miranda that she’s lived a long life and that her survival doesn’t matter. Pfeffer even hints that it is her duty to die so younger people can live. The final book sees Miranda murdering a character who has been critically injured and will impose a considerable burden on the rest of the survivors. While Miranda feels guilty, the entire scene is presented with a terrifying “I have no choice” aplomb that I found morally reprehensible.
Since my granddaughter recommended the books to me (books her school librarian had given to her), I was able to discuss what we liked and disliked about the series. And while that was a good after-the-fact teaching moment, I would encourage parents to read the books before their children and then decide what is best. I don’t subscribe to the theory that our task as Christian parents is to shield our children from life’s unpleasant realities, but we must be prudent about what we expose them to and when. The books are certainly suitable for older teens, though Christian parents should still read them first and be prepared to discuss the trilogy’s strengths and weaknesses from a biblical worldview.
Diane Singer is an English professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Image copyright Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Review copies obtained from Books-A-Million.
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