A war between the United States and China began five years before 15-year-old Stephen Quinn was born. After the U.S. launched a nuclear weapon against China, the latter unleashed a deadly biological weapon, P11H3, also known as the Eleventh Plague. Two thirds of the planet's population perished from the flu-like virus and its aftermath. Factories, hospitals, the government, the military—the world—collapsed.
In this desolate setting, Stephen, his father, and his stern grandfather, a Marine, have been roaming a gutted landscape salvaging items to trade for food, clothing, and other goods. The teenager has known only running, hiding, and surviving.
The Eleventh Plague, by Jeff Hirsch, is a post-apocalyptic, zombie-free, stand-alone novel that opens with Stephen and his father burying his grandfather, a brusque man who kept them alive and out of trouble. He also kept them on edge. As Stephen looks at the dead man's hand in its unaccustomed stillness, he says, "Grandpa's hand only made sense in motion, rearing back, the gold ring flashing as it crashed into my cheek."
When Stephen’s father tells his son that he is like his grandfather, the teenager chafes. But when his father chooses to help a woman and a young boy escape slavers, Stephen doesn't want to get involved. Tension mounts as father and son flee the slavers, and Stephen's world crumbles when his father is critically injured and falls into a coma. The next day, he and his father are found by a scout team from a nearby village looking for spies. They invite Stephen to their settlement, which is unlike anything he's ever known.
Through all these experiences, Stephen begins the difficult process of trusting and caring about others, and dealing with physical as well as psychic struggles between opposing influences: his dead grandfather's harshness, which kept them alive and out of trouble, and his comatose father's generosity, which opened Stephen's heart to kindness and compassion, although at a high cost.
Readers can't miss this powerful theme. There is more to survival than just eating, sleeping, salvaging, and avoiding trouble. Survival is also about belonging and sacrificing. Survival is about needing others and providing for them in return. The Eleventh Plague deals with loss, loneliness, and isolation. Young Stephen loses what he cares about most, but he gains a new perspective. He wants more than mere existence, and even in a plague-ravaged world, he can have it.
The author establishes tension from the first page and intersperses backstory into the narrative in an engaging way that keeps the reader at the center of the action. The novel's economical prose style is a pleasing contrast to young adult novels packed with irrelevant description that seems to exist merely to pad the story. With 278 pages in my edition (listed elsewhere at 304 pages), The Eleventh Plague is an absorbingly quick read.
There's no gratuitous violence, profanity, or sexual content, beyond a kiss or two, in this novel, and there's no particular caution for Christian parents. Parents looking for clean young adult books for their younger teenage sons might give this book a read. There's enough action and suspense (with minimal romance) to keep them turning the pages.
Image copyright Scholastic Books. Review copy supplied by the library.
La Shawn Barber is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Christian Research Journal, Christianity Today, Washington Examiner, and other publications. Visit her blog at http://lashawnbarber.com.
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