Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fantasy and Science Fiction: Life As We Knew It

Bibliographic Data
Pfeffer, Susan Beth. Life As We Knew It. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006. ISBN 139780152058265.

Plot Summary
Miranda's life is typical high school stuff - classes, grades, and boys. Then one day, an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it out of its familiar orbit. Back on earth, this causes worldwide chaos - widespread tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and the loss of sunlight because of a massive cloud of volacanic ash. Suddenly everything's different. It's a race for survival. Will Miranda's family survive, against all the odds?

Critical Analysis
In Life as We Knew It, the protagonist, Miranda lives a normal teenaged life in rural Pennsylvania. Then an asteroid hits the moon and everything changes. Life becomes a daily struggle for survival.

The story is written as a series of diary entries by Miranda. At the beginning, she worries about school grades, what her friends are arguing about this week, and how she’ll ever make it through high school. Then the asteroid hits the moon. Pfeffer’s account of this moment reads ominously realistic:

            “And then it hit. Even though we knew it was going to,
           we were still shocked when the asteroid actually
           made contact with the moon. With our moon. At that
           second, I think we all realized that it was Our Moon
           and if it was attacked, then we were attacked.

           Or maybe nobody thought that. I know that most of
           the people on the road cheered, but then we all
           stopped cheering and a woman a few houses down
           screamed and then a man screamed, “Oh my God!”
           And people were yelling “What? What?” like one of us
           knew the answer.

           I know all those astronomers I’d watched an hour
           earlier on CNN can explain just what happened and
           how and why and they’ll be explaining on CNN tonight
           and tomorrow and I guess until the next big story
           happens. I know I can’t explain, because I don’t really
           know what happened and I sure don’t know why.

           But the moon wasn’t a half moon anymore. It was
           tilted and wrong and a three-quarter moon and it got
           larger, way larger, large like a moon rising on the
           horizon, only it wasn’t rising. It was smack in the
           middle of the sky, way too big, way too visible. You
           could see details on the craters even without the
           binoculars that before I’d seen with Matt’s

           It was still our moon and it was still just a big dead
           rock in the sky, but it wasn’t benign anymore. It was
           terrifying, and you could feel the panic swell all
           around us” (18-19).

With the moon’s new position in Earth’s sky, there are immediate widespread tsunamis which destroy the coastlines of every continent. Later, volcanic eruptions occur all over the world, to the point where the sunlight is blocked out by the cloud of volcanic ash filling the sky. Again, Pfeffer’s accounting of this, based on actual science, rings frighteningly true. Since the moon exerts such a strong gravitational pull on the Earth, influencing the tides, any shift in the moon’s position would of course affect the tides. And Pfeffer’s explanation of the increased volcanic activity also is based on sound science.

            “”The moon’s gravitational pull is forcing magma
           through the volcanoes. From what we heard on the
           radio last night and this morning, there are dormant
           volcanoes erupting everywhere. It’s been going on for
           a few days now and there’s no guarantee it’s ever
           going to stop. The earthquakes haven’t. The floods
           haven’t. The eruptions may not either.”

            “I still don’t get how that’s going to affect us,“ I said.
            “You said there are no volcanoes here. Have lots of
           people died?”

            “Lots,” Matt said. “And lots more are going to. And not
           just people who live near volcanoes, either….”

            “Look outside,” Matt said. “Just look at that sky.”

           So I did. It was that funny shade of gray.

            “When a large enough volcano erupts, it clouds the
           sky,” Matt said. “Not just a mile away and not just a
           hundred miles away. Thousands of miles away, and
           not just for a day or two either.”

            “The concern is that the volcanic ash will cover the
           sun most places on earth,” Mom said. “Like it seems
           to be doing already here. And if it lasts long

            “Crops,” Matt said. “No sunlight, no crops. Nothing
           grows without sunlight.”

           ….”They’re starting to issue warnings,” Mom said.
            “The scientists on the radio. They say we should be
           prepared for major climatic changes. Drought’s a real
           possibility, and record cold temperatures. It’s already
           cooling off here. It was eighty-eight when I went to
           bed last night, and it’s seventy-two now. But feel how
           muggy it is. It hasn’t cooled off because of a
           thunderstorm. It’s cooled off because the sunlight
           can’t penetrate the ash in the sky” (121-122).

The plot of this book is filled with such realistic detail that one of my classmates commented, “I have noticed that I look at the moon a little differently now and wonder could the moon really be knocked off kilter and cause such havic [sic] on the Earth?” (Beaird). One of my favorite lines in this book is from Miranda’s diary entry of October 26. Two days before that, Miranda’s mom declares Indian summer when the temperature gets up as high as 29. On the 26th, though, the temperature drops back down, and Miranda writes, “It was 12 degrees this afternoon. I guess Indian summer was pretty short this year” (229).

Christmas is especially poignant. Christmas Eve night, the neighbors, who have never really known each other, all get together to go caroling. It’s so wonderful to see other people again, not just Miranda’s family members. “So much food. So much laughing. It was great” (281). Then Christmas Day, everybody has presents. That night, Miranda writes:

            “The Christmas after Mom and Dad split up, they both
           went crazy buying us presents. Matt, Jonny, and I
           were showered with gifts at home and at Dad’s
           apartment; I thought that was great. I was all in favor
           or my love being paid for with presents.

           This year, all I got was a diary and a secondhand

           Okay, I know this is corny, but his really is what
           Christmas is all about” (255).

The winter wears on. No electricity, no heating oil, no gasoline, no water. Miranda’s family is slowly forced to cut back to starvation rations. They gradually cut back to only one meal a day, and finally down to only 5 meals a week. At the beginning of the winter, Miranda sulks and argues when her mother asks her to reduce her meals to leave more food for her little brother. But by the end of the winter, Miranda has nursed her family through a flu epidemic that killed most of the neighbors. She has single-handedly kept her family alive when the chimney catches on fire. She has matured enough now to admit that her little brother, Jonny, has the best chance of survival out of all of them. Miranda makes the conscious decision to sacrifice herself so that Jonny can have more food.

She has the emotional courage to set out on what she believes is a suicidal cross-country ski trip to town. She talks to no one but her older brother because she doesn’t want them to try to stop her.

            “”Do you really think you have the strength to make to
           town and back?” he asked.

           I wanted to say, No, of course I don’t and we both
           know it and that’s one reason why I’m going. I wanted
           to say, Stop me, because if I’m going to die, I want to
           die at home. I wanted to say, How could you have let
           this happen to me? As though it was Matt’s fault and
           he could have saved us somehow. None of which I

            “I know it’s crazy,” I said… How much longer can I
           last anyway? A week? Two? I’m willing to lose a few
           days for peace of mind. You understand that, don’t

            “But if you can, you will come back,” he said after a
           long pause.

            “I hope I can,” I said. I’d rather be here. But if I can’t
           that’s okay, too.”

           ….Well that was it, wasn’t it? I was leaving home to
           give Jonny just a little better chance. We were
           starving ourselves to give Jonny just a little better

           I … kissed him goodbye. “And I love you and Jonny
           and Mom more than I ever knew” (228-229).

The theme of this novel is man vs. nature and man vs. man, but mostly man vs. self. Miranda has some growing up to do, and the events caused by the asteroid strike help her maturity develop faster than if it hadn’t happened. If Miranda’s family hadn’t been isolated by the catastrophes that occur throughout the story, Miranda would have continued on her normal path. In January, her Mom tells her, “You’re a very special girl. No, you’re a very special woman, Miranda. Thank you” (311).

Miranda makes it to the City Hall, where she finds out that food is now being given away to all survivors. She takes food back to her starving family on a snowmobile. And Miranda has learned what the important things in life are. On her 17th birthday, Miranda writes the last entry in this journal:

            “…today, when I am 17 and warm and well fed, I’m
           keeping this journal for myself so I can always
           remember life as we knew it, life as we know it, for a
           time when I am no longer in the sunroom” (237).

Awards and Honors
Black-Eyed Susan Book Award, 2009; Winner High School Maryland.
Evergreen Young Adult Book Award, 2009; Winner Washington.
Hal Clement Award, 2006; Finalist United States.
Quill Awards, 2007; Nominee Young Adult/Teen United States.
Sheffield Children's Book Award, 2008; Shortlist Longer Novel United Kingdom.

Review Excerpts
Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2007)
In this taut survival story, an asteroid hits the moon, knocking it closer toward Earth, which results in cataclysmic natural disasters. Sixteen-year-old Miranda's journal entries provide a riveting account of how lack of information and resources, and, subsequently, loss of hope for the future shrink her world. Against mounting dismal conditions, her family's drawing together to find meaning in their altered lives is all the more triumphant.

CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices, 2007)
When Miranda begins writing in her new diary, there are few surprises. She is an average teenage girl, living in an average Pennsylvania town, prone to adolescent self-absorption. But when an asteroid hits the moon, a nearly apocalyptic weather change occurs and her shift in attention is sudden and palpable. No one can predict the long-term outcome of the catastrophe. Mass hysteria is followed by the slowly dawning realization that things may not get better. Months go by and Miranda’s diary reveals the growing anxiety and fear within her family. There is scarcely power, the water supply is threatened, and meals soon need to be rationed to one or two cans of food a day. Her family survives illnesses and injuries, and the death of close friends, all the while cut off from knowledge of what is happening beyond their town. The sense of doom in this fast-paced, speculative novel is overwhelming, but so, too, is the humanity of its characters and the will to survive.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2006 (Vol. 74, No. 18))
Sixteen-year-old Miranda begins a daily ten-month diary documenting the survival ordeal her rural Pennsylvania family endures when a large meteor's collision with the moon brings on destruction of the modern world and all its technological conveniences. The change in the moon's gravitational pull begins to cause natural havoc around the globe in the form of catastrophic tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes and other weather-related disasters. Miranda's American teen view gradually alters as personal security, physical strength and health become priorities. Pfeffer paints a gruesome and often depressing drama as conditions become increasingly difficult and dangerous with the dwindling of public and private services. Miranda's daily litany of cutting firewood, rationing canned meals, short tempers flaring in a one-room confinement is offset by lots of heart-to-heart talks about life and its true significance with her mother, older brother and religiously devout best friend. Death is a constant threat, and Pfeffer instills despair right to the end but is cognizant to provide a ray of hope with a promising conclusion. Plausible science fiction with a frighteningly realistic reminder of recent tragedies here and abroad.

Book Hook or discussion questions
Pair this book with Pfeffer's other books in this series, The Dead & the Gone (2008) and This World We Live In (due out in 2010).

Online Connections
Susan Beth Pfeffer's blog titled Meteors, Moons, and Me.

Beaird, S. 10/24/2009. “Re” What may be – Life as we knew it.” TWU Fall 2009      Blackboard posting for LS5623 (Advanced Literature for Young Adults).

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