Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Richie's Picks Gives Fallout Five Stars



Richie's Picks: FALLOUT by Todd Strasser, Candlewick, September 2013, 272p., ISBN: 978-0-7636-5534-1

"Yes we're gonna have a wingding
A summer smoker underground
It's just a dugout that my dad built
In case the Reds decide to push the button down."
-- Donald Fagan, "The New Frontier"

"The Russians were evil. Their chubby bald-headed leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had crooked teeth and an ugly gap between the front two, which showed that Russians didn't even believe in orthodontia. And if that didn't make him anti-American enough, there was the time he'd come to the United Nations and banged his shoe on the rostrum, which proved beyond a doubt that the Commies were unpredictable, violent, and crazy enough to blow us all up."

"We'll break down these walls with our music and our art"
-- from a prayer during the opening ceremony at the Enchanted Forest transformational music and arts festival

I pause from my reading to watch some of the more talented dancers gyrating amidst the redwoods. It's early evening but, being just days beyond the solstice, it is still quite warm and there will still be light for at least another hour.

From my perspective, this is a young crowd. You really need to scan the scene closely to see those who might have been alive during the Summer of Love, no less recall the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's one. A couple more over there, but not many.

It's a really relaxed vibe at this weekend festival in the northern California coastal hills. Officially a no-alcohol venue, the vast majority here are blissed out on pot and redwoods, friendships and frisbees, marathon dancing to the electronic music, and a killer, thrumming speaker system that is shaking the ground under me.

And here I sit, amidst the peaceful play of a young generation, reading a tense story directly related to what was the scariest aspect of my childhood -- the threat of nuclear war, and those air raid drills where you'd duck and cover under your school desk as if that would mitigate the effects of a nuclear bomb attack.

The world has made it this far, thanks to the negotiations that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis of my childhood. But in the alternative world in which Todd Strasser's FALLOUT takes place, the Cuban Missile Crisis does, in fact, lead to nuclear war.

"The metal rungs hurt the bottoms of my bare feet as I lower myself. The dark air in the shelter is cool and damp and smells like mildew. Suddenly boxes and bags of things shower down, bouncing off my head and arms, and falling into the shadows below. I cry out in surprise, even though it doesn't really hurt. Already Mom's feet are on the rungs just above me.
"'Hurry!' Dad yells.
"'Ow!' Sparky cries, and I wonder if Dad accidentally banged him into something as he tried to lower him through the trapdoor.
"One of my feet touches the cold concrete floor; the other steps on a box that collapses with a crunch.
''In there!' a man's voice shouts.
"Above me, Mom yells, 'Careful, Edward!'"

I knew how good FALLOUT was going to be when I found myself toying with the idea of putting it down at the end of the first chapter. By that point, it was already making me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Queasy, in fact.

Scott's father had a fallout shelter built under the addition to their home. It's the only one in the American neighborhood in which they live. When nuclear war breaks out, and Scott, his parents, and his little brother scramble to get down into the shelter, some neighbors who know about it break into their house and force their way into the shelter. The door is sealed and time below ground begins.

But the supplies that have been stockpiled in the shelter are only meant to support four lives, not this crowd. Thus, the two weeks that need to be spent in the shelter -- while the radiation levels outside decrease sufficiently to permit going out without assuredly dying -- provide an oft-ugly look at human nature when fear, hunger, claustrophobia, prejudice, and survival instincts all set in.

Told from Scott's perspective, the chapters in FALLOUT alternate between the preceding months, where we get to know these characters in their more normal states of being, and the days in the shelter that get more and more tense as the lack of food and supplies force decisions to be hammered out and permit our seeing a very dark side of humankind.

And what I'm thinking about, as I gaze across this crowd of beautiful young people, and think about my own children who are part of this generation, is how, fifty-one years after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the verge of nuclear war, there remain thousands of nuclear warheads in the world today. Sadly, the hatred in the world that divides countries and religious groups, combined with the existence of these weapons, assures us that the threat of nuclear war remains as ever-presently real now as it was back then.

"And when I really get to know you
We'll open up the doors and climb into the dawn"
-- Donald Fagan

Richie Partington is a well-regarded and influential blogger and I love the way he works the review into a time and place and Donald Fagen's (Steely Dan) lyrics. Thanks, Richie!


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