Book Review: Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Book Review: Ashfall by Mike Mullin

In the world of young adult fiction, the sub-genre of global natural disasters is one I find particularly intriguing. When life as we know it is suddenly wrenched away from us, what’s left, and how do we survive? In the best of these types of YA novels, we follow a sympathetic main character on a trajectory from childhood to unexpected early adulthood, as physical survival and the struggle to retain human morality force the character to shoulder responsibility and find his or her untapped strengths and determination.

I’m happy to place Ashfall in the “best of” category. Ashfall is the story of 15-year-old Alex, a normal, somewhat sullen suburban teen boy whose world is swept out from under him:

I was home alone on that Friday evening. Those who survived know exactly which Friday I mean. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, in the same way my parents remembered 9/11, but more so. Together we lost the old world, slipping from that cocoon of mechanized comfort into the hellish land we inhabit now. The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones, and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness, and hunger.

Alex has refused to go on a family visit to cousins in Illinois and is therefore home alone in Cedar Falls, Iowa when all hell breaks loose – more specifically, when the long-inactive supervolcano located under Yellowstone erupts with spectacular and devasting impact. Civilization dissolves practically immediately as the world is inexorably coated with a heavy layer of ash. Scavenging, looting, mistrust, and violence are rampant among the survivors of the initial disaster, and starvation is lurking right around the corner. Within days, Alex begins to shrug off the last vestiges of his childhood, leaving the questionable safety of his neighbors’ protection and striking out cross-country through a ruined, nightmarish landscape on a quest to reunite with his parents and younger sister.

Along the way, Alex is forced, time and again, to choose between self-interest and doing the right thing. He receives help when he expects none, and chooses to help others, even when doing so imperils his own meager supply of food and water and could mean the difference between life and death. What’s interesting here is that Alex is not portrayed as a selfless hero. The author shows us Alex’s internal struggle, his thought processes, and his decision to be a person who tries to do right. It’s not easy for him, but it’s a sign of Alex’s maturation that he realizes that securing food and shelter will not be enough for him if he has to shed his essential goodness; physical survival without the survival of his humanity will not suffice.

We follow Alex along a difficult and sometimes gruesome path. He meets Darla, a strong-willed, feisty, talented farm girl with her own tragedies to confront and accept. Darla becomes Alex’s travel companion and soul mate, and their deepening trust and affection for one another help give Ashfall much of its heart. What could have been merely an exciting adventure story becomes a much more personal journey toward love, family, and adulthood.

When I picked up Ashfall, I had expected to read a story about physical survival in a nightmarish, post-disaster world. I’m pleased to be able to say that Ashfall provides a deeper, more moving experience than expected.

The sequel to Ashfall, Ashen Winter, is due out in October 2012, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve become quite fond of Alex and Darla, and I can’t wait to see how their story continues to unfold.

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