Monday, May 09, 2005

The Girl Who Owned A City

Sometimes you can't go home again; or, you can never read the same book twice.

I loved The Girl Who Owned A City by O.T. Nelson when I read it in about sixth grade. Given the number of times this appears as a stumper on the child_lit and yalsa-bk mailing lists, I am not alone. This book really stuck with me... If you haven't read it, plot is simple: virus kills everyone over the age of 12 and the kids are left to fend for themselves. Basically a kiddie The Stand (interestingly, if Amazon's publication dates are to be trusted Nelson's book came out before King's.)

What I remember about it, and why I loved it, and why I continue to love the world is ending/ nine tenths of the world is dead what now fiction: the struggle for survival; the violence; the ingenuity; the making do, figuring out, discovering how to do things (make fire, for instance) for the first time. The starting over.

So I reread this book, of 10 year old Lisa and baby brother Todd, hoping to revisit the love.... and came away with a sort of sick to the stomach I-used-to-date-him-what-the-hell-was-I-thinking reaction. I'm sure that kids still love it. But as an adult, I couldn't help but question a lot that I accepted as a child.

For example, where were all the dead bodies? Apparently all the adults conveniently dug their own graves before they died. And what happened to the babies? I had recalled one of the neighbors, Jill, taking in all the little ones left alone in the neighborhood, but I discovered it was only toddlers she saved. No infants. No babies. The "littles" taken in were eating, talking, toilet trained. There are no problems with sewage, waste, or rats.

And Lisa, the strong girl I admired, is a mini control freak a hair away from utter dictatorship. She "owns" the city and the food supply because she thought of something first, and to a kid reading it -- where calling "first" is the rule of the playground -- it made sense and I agreed. But now I doubt that; Lisa ignores the hard work and ingenuity that may exist in others. Lisa also is hell bent on "getting airplanes to fly again," and rebuilding the society that was. OK -- except she actively discourages the boy who wants to start farming for food, arguing that there is still plenty of canned food. Again, the 11 year old me bought her argument, but now, I wonder how long before Lisa & co starve to death because she doesn't value those who produce, who work with their hands. By the time that I finished reading, I was hoping for a revolution and overthrow of Lisa.

Bottom line: kids, especially younger ones, will love this book. They won't question some of the stuff, like lack of bodies; instead, they will enjoy reading about a child who manages to save her family and friends. It's a great story of survival. But an adult reading it will be disappointed and wonder about the fuss.

I've been trying to get additional information on this book and the author; various Internet rumors include that Nelson's 2 children were named Lisa and Todd; this was set in Nelson's home town and the landmarks are readily identifiable; Nelson was a man; Nelson was a woman; Nelson wrote a sequel; Nelson dies before a sequel could be written; the book represents the politics/ theory of Ayn Rand.


Anonymous said...

I've never read this book. I'm off to find it! And now I'm intrigued about the author.


Liz B said...

Let me know what you think! Part of the problem I had with it was because I loved it so much as a kid -- I don't think it could live up to the golden glow of memory. That, and having read a lot of survivor stuff since (King's The Stand, Armstrong's Fire Us Trilogy) made me more critical & questioning. Still, its an excellent intro to "everyone dies but you, now what" fiction. I'm very interested in hearing what someone new to the book thinks.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. I haven't been able to bring myself to read some of the novels of my teen years, like Forever, Catcher in the Rye or The Pigman because I'm afraid that I'll see them differently.