Ever wonder what happens when an author passes away before the next book is completed? Z for Zachariah is one answer to that question. Author Robert C. O’Brien is probably most famous for his Newberry Award-winning classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. From that notably sinister vision for a piece of children’s literature, O’Brien moved even deeper into the darkness for what would eventually become his final novel. The novel’s themes about survival in the face of the end of the world becomes unexpectedly personal in light of the story behind the story.
The story of Z for Zachariah is all about survival in the face of nuclear annihilation. Young heroine Ann Burden finds herself quite possibly the only human being left on earth after the atom-induced holocaust. Left to her own devices for survival in the lonely post-apocalyptic world of Amish country somewhere along the northern Atlantic coast, Ann manages to find not just the means to survive but the will. And then a man in a strange green plastic suit reveals that Ann is not necessarily the only survivor.
In a way, O’Brien’s manuscript for his novel became a symbolic personification of the story it tells. O’Brien’s death equates with the nuclear holocaust, orphaning his manuscript and raising the very real possibility that it would not survive. Taking on the real life role of Ann Burden were his wife Sally and daughter Jane who worked together from notes left behind by O’Brien outlining how the missing parts of the novel would be filled in. The result is a novel that may assertively be said to have three authors rather than one. Its subsequent commercial success and critical acclaims stands as proof that a singular vision can be maintained through a novel completed as a collective endeavor. Some might well suggest that the contribution of wife and daughter verge closer into the domain occupied by editors than the realm overseen by writers, but when the goal is nothing less than sheer survival what, one may fairly ask, is the point of splitting hairs?
The collective result of the work of the O’Brien family went on to be singled out by the Mystery Writers of America in 1976 as their recipient of the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery Fiction of that year. Z for Zachariah also received as special Honor Award from the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards that year.
A film adaptation of the novel was released in 2015 starring Chris Pine, Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The mere fact that the cast features three recognizable names is indicative of how far from the original material the adaptation strayed. A second male character was introduced for the inexplicable purpose of turning the stark and often horrific tale of two oppositional approaches to surviving after a nuclear holocaust into that most pedestrian of plot devices: the love triangle. While critical reaction suggests that as an example of this overdone storyline, the adaptation is interesting enough in its right, viewers should realize that any attempt to pass off an academic analysis of the novel based on the narrative that unfolds in the film version of Z for Zachariah is doomed.