You prepared us for every possible disaster scenario—except this one.
So what do we do when the apocalypse happens from the inside? When it’s our family, and not civilization itself, that falls apart?
While you were busy preparing for catastrophe, maybe the worst really did happen, and it wasn’t what you thought it would be at all.
—Instructions for the End of the World, by Jamie Kain
In July of 2002, 16-year-old Nicole Reed’s ex-military, survivalist father moves the family to a remote—and extremely dilapidated—house in Middle-Of-Nowhere, California. Late that night, her mother storms out and drives off. Three days later, her father goes looking for her, leaving his two daughters alone. Maybe for a week, maybe for longer. He leaves Nicole in charge.
Seventeen-year-old Wolf has lived his whole life at Sadhana Village, a spiritual retreat center. His father committed suicide four years ago, and his mother has been largely absent—sometimes physically present, but in an alcoholic or drug-fueled haze, sometimes not present at all. For the last year, she’s been away. Now she’s back and saying that she’s sober, this time, for good.
On the surface, Nicole and Wolf have nothing in common—when they meet, he’s sitting in a tree communing with nature, and she’s about to shoot a hare for dinner—but as we all know, appearances can be deceiving.
There were two aspects of this book that I found entirely engaging and refreshing. First, I loved Kain’s commentary about the difference between survival as a lifestyle CHOICE, and survival as a NECESSITY.
Nicole’s father—due in part to 9/11, due in part to other factors—is convinced that civilization is going to crumble, and soon. He believes that comfort is unnecessary, an indulgence, and promotes weakness. Nicole’s mother, meanwhile, is originally from Cambodia, and she and her family—those who didn’t die when her village was massacred by the Khmer Rouge—immigrated to the United States when she was 6. She has experienced terror and hunger and loss, and she’s not about to revisit that by choice—and the fact that her husband doesn’t understand that, isn’t interested in seeing or acknowledging that, is just one facet of the many, many problems between them.
Later, when the girls are alone, Nicole’s survival skills become less of a choice in how to navigate family life—unlike her younger sister, she has always found it easier to just do what her father wants, rather than fight him every step of the way—and more of a necessity, a way to stay alive.
Second, Kain does a nice job of showing various versions of isolation: that sometimes we crave it, that sometimes it brings us pain, that sometimes it can help us heal, that sometimes it can be a source of harm. And, like the previous point, a lot of it has to do with perspective and whether said isolation is by choice or is forced on us—walking away from a situation or a person can be entirely empowering, but when we’re the ones being left behind, it can be exactly the opposite.
Not everything works as well—it’s told in four voices, and Nicole and Wolf’s voices, especially, are very similar, right down to the way they structure their sentences. And as interesting the dynamics are in the Reed family, Wolf is more two-dimensional, the stereotype of someone who has grown up on a commune: right down to loving Thoreau, romanticizing Native Americans, musing about what trees love, and saying things like:
...maybe when it’s finished I will build a bridge to the moon.
I will learn what the crystalline perfection of solitude has to teach me.
On the one hand, those traits are all in keeping with his upbringing—and to a degree, his anger toward his mother helps to round his character out. But overall, he never becomes quite real.
So, mixed feelings! But that’s never a bad thing—more often than not, mixed-bag books are the ones that promote the most discussion, thought, and debate.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.