In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember thinking that I might be less anxious if I hadn’t watched or read some effective disaster-fiction. I had watched the first season or two of Walking Dead, where clean attractive suburban neighbourhoods with empty streets would be unexpectedly filled with looters, gangs, or unspeakable zombie horrors. And the first episodes of Black Summer had the same feel. The post-disaster young adult novel series by Susan Beth Pfeffer that started with Life as We Knew It kept coming to mind too – the teenage viewpoint characters and their families trying to cope with increasing isolation and decreasing food supplies, a contagious illness, the little excursions and temporary hopes dashed … I was trying to think why the post-disaster-isolation trope in the young adult fiction felt so resonant and recalled a couple of other kids’ books.
One I read in a school library was Hills End, by Australian Ivan Southall. In this novel, a group of contemporary (to 1962) children is trapped by a storm and flood. One scene that had stuck with me clearly involved a boy who had no sense of smell, exploring the abandoned or destroyed town, and experimenting with the sausage-making equipment at the butcher shop not realizing the meat had spoiled.
Another kids book with intrepid siblings coping in isolation, which I read at a public library in the mid-1980s, was set on a small farm near Guelph Ontario. I haven’t been able to track this one down or find anyone else who remembered it, so I’d love leads or confirmations. Anyway, on a winter day the parents head to town to do provisioning but by the time the school bus drops the kids at the end of their lane, it’s snowing so hard that the parents stay in town and the kids manage with feeding the animals, keeping themselves warm, and resorting to making porridge out of pig food and sugar to feed themselves without needing to kill a pig.
I tried to reassure myself that small disasters and temporary crises, managed by civic infrastructure that was mostly adequate to the task, were probably much more likely but just didn’t make exciting fiction. But it was hard – it still is – to observe current events, as a lover of speculative fiction, and not imagine what worse things could happen. So I turned to fictions where the disastrous situation was more historical.
In Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery’s 1921 novel of a teenage Canadian girl growing up in World War I, there is a bit early in the war where
“The war will not be over before next spring now,” said Dr. Blythe. […]
Rilla was murmuring “knit four, purl one” under her breath, and rocking the baby’s cradle with one foot. […] She laid down her knitting for a moment and said, “Oh, how can we bear it so long?” – then picked up her sock and went on. The Rilla of two months before would have rushed off to Rainbow Valley and cried.
This bit sounded familiar and comforting, so I got out the copy I’d received as a child and read the rest of the story once again. Sure enough, the wartime worries and challenges that felt overwhelming at the start became matter-of-fact background over the four years of the story. I also recognized the way community members learn and enforce new etiquette or ethics of consumption – snatching up scarce everyday goods and provisions or trying not to take more than their share. Feeling ashamed of buying a too-extravagant velvet hat reminded me of current discussions of about non-essential goods and a certain multinational delivery service. In this story as in history, the war did end, and the novel has a happy-enough ending for marketable young adult fiction. When I read it as a child and teenager, the wartime setting seemed like ancient history. It’s only recently that I began to realize the significance of being raised by adults for whom the deaths and worries and financial hardships of World War II were not long ago. For them, the world was probably still an unpredictable and dangerous place, in a way that it wasn’t for me.
Wanting something to watch while I knitted that was well-crafted television but was familiar enough that I would anticipate the sad or shocking parts, I worked through all five seasons of The Wire, the David Simon work of fifteen years ago focusing on crime, policing, and society in Baltimore. It is my third or fourth straight-through viewing and I still think it’s one of the best television dramas ever.
Then I moved on to the same creators’ project Treme, about life in post-Katrina New Orleans. So far I’ve re-watched the first two seasons, but my original viewing of those was always spotty and mostly on Air Canada planes with their free HBO selections. It’s hard to believe this month that I used to fly often enough that I had a preferred airline because of their televisions, and that I could keep up to date on a series that way.
And as you’d expect, it’s very topical. There’s almost nothing showing the characters during the hurricane or immediately afterwards, and I am glad of that choice. But watching people rebuild their houses, their businesses, and their lives when they’ve all survived the same disaster gives me hope. I appreciated seeing the discussions of when and how to open the schools, how unsophisticated people struggle to navigate the application processes for rebuild funding, and how disaster and post-disaster collapse can contribute extra stresses to small businesses, to families, and to individuals at risk.
I also appreciate the frequent demonstration of the resilience and necessity of the arts and artists, in the many musician characters of the series. As a theatre artist and member of the arts community, I know that there will be arts, storytelling, and theatre after this pandemic. I don’t know the details of when it will resume and what it will be like, but I know that we will be performing and telling stories and watching and listening and talking about them. And I am so grateful to the team that brought Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play to Edmonton last year, because I keep coming back to its message of hope – that even in the kind of destroyed civilization that has no Diet Coke, there are still theatre makers and theatre viewers and it matters.
Fiction is powerful. It can enhance my despair, but it can also remind me of reasons to hope and reasons to rejoice. So I’ll keep reading and watching and listening and discussing. If you are up for reading something about life in a fictional pandemic, this is a strong recommendation for Naomi Kritzer’s 2015 story So Much Cooking. And if you’d like a general list of books that can suck you in, Jo Walton’s list of Books that Grab You is great.