I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of books lately. I don’t know why I set the bar low for these particular books – maybe it’s because I had come off a rash of mediocrity and just expected more of the same – but I am always glad to be proven wrong in this respect.
In Mike Mullin’s debut Ashfall, the supervolcano at Yellowstone has erupted. Teenage Alex is home alone when it occurs. His parents and sister have gone to visit family 100 miles away – not such a long way if you have a car and plenty of gasoline, but quite a ways when you’re on foot and have to deal with hostile people prone to violence, ash coming down in sheets, and the onset of an early, and perhaps neverending, winter. Still, Alex is determined to find them, hoping they survived where so many others didn’t. It’s not an easy journey, obviously, but it is a gripping one. The book is long and the pages fly by.
Ashfall is best described as a survival story. I’d also categorize it as an apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) tale, at least on a small scale – there are hints of worldwide catastrophe as a result of the eruption, but the bad stuff is mostly kept to the United States – but it’s not a dystopia. I think that’s an important distinction to make for this book. While there’s widespread chaos and many people act horribly, there’s no repressive society at work here. And that’s a strength. Often the dystopian societies that form in books such as these – sometimes following a natural catastrophe – are chilling but unbelievable. The fact that no such society forms here makes the book, in my mind, more genuine. Couple that with the fact that many scientists do say the supervolcano at Yellowstone is “overdue” for an eruption, and you have a pretty darn believable story. And it’s all the more engaging for it.
I loved reading about survival during the ashfall from a boy’s point of view. I also loved that Alex’s survival wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of Darla, an extremely capable and non-traditional girl he meets partway through the book. Darla’s a farmer and knows how to skin rabbits and jimmy farm equipment. She’s abrasive and not always pleasant to be around, but she’s got a good heart and isn’t always the strong one. She’s also a bit older than Alex, and watching their relationship develop is quite interesting.
I never thought anything would make me say this, but I enjoyed Ashfall so much that it’s making me want to go back and re-read that classic survival story for kids, Hatchet, a book I never liked as a child. I wonder if my reading tastes have changed enough in the ~15 years since I last read it that I would like it now. I haven’t ever bothered going back and re-reading books I disliked as a youth, always assuming I’d dislike them now, but Ashfall makes me wonder.
Book borrowed from my local library.