Jory’s stepfather Caleb is waiting for the end of the world, and everything — from the color of leaves in spring to the direction fish swim in an aquarium — is a sign, telling him that end is coming soon.
I love the way that this middle school-ish book turns the whole post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre on its head. Because the terrifying collapse of civilization is only in Caleb’s head, but that doesn’t make it any less scary or less real — for Caleb or his adopted family, which includes Kit, a runaway they found in the pumpkin patch, and Jory’s little half-brother Ansel. When Caleb decides that his family has to spend their nights digging the equivalent of a bomb shelter in the canyon in their backyard, he’s obviously doing it to protect them. Jory’s been living with Caleb’s fears since his anxiety-ridden mom married Caleb when Jory was just a kid — he can’t remember life when he wasn’t watching for signs and waiting for the end, trying to stay off the grid and avoid any attention from the authorities.
All that changes when Jory goes to school, which Caleb thinks will distract the Officials from the family’s plans while they’re preparing for the coming crisis. At school, Jory meets kids who play computer games instead of digging tunnels, and parents who worry about what to put on hamburgers rather than about the end of days. The more time Jory spends in the outside world, the more he starts to question Caleb’s plans for their family.
What works so well about this book is how matter-of-fact it is about Caleb’s paranoia. Jory doesn’t totally buy into Caleb’s fear mongering — and he’s more and more skeptical of it as the book progresses — but it never occurs to him (or to anyone in the family) to question Caleb’s plans. Indeed, Caleb’s paranoia is on the extreme side, but it doesn’t feel that far away from the kind of worry that just watching the news or reading the paper can create. Jory doesn’t have a single brilliant moment of realization; instead, his time in the outside world slowly opens him up to the possibility that Caleb’s way isn’t the only way. There’s a lot in the book that hinges on Jory’s “sister” Kit, the little girl they found in the family pumpkin patch and “adopted.” Kit doesn’t speak, and Jory has developed a system of signs and expressions to communicate with her. Their relationship is really sweet.
It’s hard, sometimes, to capture the experience of growing up in a post-9/11 world, that feeling of not being safe in our own skin, much less in our own houses. I really liked the way that this book dealt with those kinds of fears, in the character of Caleb, obviously, but also with Jory. In the end, Caleb may be right — the world may be on the brink of disaster at any given moment. But living — fully and richly — in spite of that fear may prepare us for whatever lies ahead at least as well as bomb shelters and combat boots.