I have a love-hate relationship with disaster stories. On the one hand, they can give me anxiety, but on the other hand, they can be riveting in how their characters react to the disaster. Much in the vein of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Last Survivors series (which I recommend checking out), Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles shows a young girl’s perspective of the slow collapse of modern society following a global catastrophe—as her world shifts from comfortable and normal to uncertain and terrifying.
Eleven-year-old Julia is a normal Californian girl: she goes to school, plays soccer with her friends, and just wishes that her cute neighbor Seth will notice her. When news leaks that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow, people are intrigued, but not necessarily scared. But the days and nights quickly stretch into fifty-plus hours, and tensions rise over whether clock-time should be kept, crops begin failing, and solar storms flare across the sky, threatening the power grid. And it looks like this global disaster will soon spur many personal disasters for Julia too…
Like I said, disaster stories are riveting because they provide instant tension: will the characters react with calmness to imminent doom, or with extreme fear? How long will they survive in this brave new world? What lengths will these characters go to survive? But I think they work best when there is an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness. As more and more characters are taken from the story, our protagonist has to make increasingly difficult decisions. This is especially engaging when said protagonist is only a pre-teen girl.
Julia, while only eleven, has to go through some heart-wrenching changes, and you wish you could pluck her from the pages and hug her. Her mother is a worrisome drama queen who soon takes ill, her father has an affair with their neighbor, and her best friend’s personality changes over time, just to name a few. To talk about other changes would invite spoilers, but let’s just say my eyes were not dry for a good chunk of the book’s latter half.
It couldn’t have been a more awkward time to come of age for Julia, though. She tries her first bra, sneaks out with friends, skips school, and all other teenage trouble–all while her world slowly, literally ends.
The premise of the earth’s rotation miraculously slowing is pretty fantastic, but the gravity of the situation is still heavy. You believe that all these harrowing changes to life on Earth can really happen, and actually have lasting consequences. The human element is the most profound and important part of the story. We don’t need to be spoon-fed complicated explanations of why this event is happening: what’s important is that it is happening, and it profoundly affects these ordinary—and frankly helpless—people.
Disaster stories may give me anxiety, but I cannot help the fascinating picture of humanity that they paint. We wonder how we would react when faced with catastrophe—what we would do to preserve our way of life even when we know it might not last. I may always weep during these stories, but that’s more because they make us face tough situations that we pray to God will never come, but are not out of the realm of possibility.