On the first page of his exciting, harrowing new novel, Todd Strasser pulls his readers into a nightmare that almost came true. Scott Porter is a fifth grader living in a New York City suburb in 1962. One night his father shakes him awake, saying, “We’re being attacked.”
Strasser has reimagined the Cuban missile crisis and set “Fallout” in a realistic John F. Kennedy America. Mickey Mantle plays hero for the Yankees. Nikita Khrushchev plays villain for the Reds. Dads go to work and read Playboy. Moms keep house and smoke. The one unhistorical detail is that in this story the Soviets don’t back down. They strike.
The narrative that follows alternates between present-tense scenes of acute distress as the Porter family and six largely unwanted guests struggle to stay sane and alive in an ill-stocked bomb shelter meant for four, and past-tense scenes of the simple, everyday dramas of Scott and his pals in the lead-up to the bombing. Nothing so theatrically terrible happens inside the shelter, though there are some grisly arguments about reducing the number of hungry mouths. Yet as I read and suffered along with the characters, I kept thinking how comparatively pleasant it would have been for them to have faced one of those zombie apocalypses screenwriters are so fond of these days. The bomb shelter is a form of living death. No electricity, no privacy, enough food for only a few days and persistent questions about whether the occupants will starve or suffocate or kill one another before radiation levels fall enough for them to escape the shelter. And what will they find when they open that trapdoor?
“There’s down here and up there,” Scott says. “The ones who feel like they’re buried are alive, while the ones who aren’t buried probably aren’t alive.” Personally, I’ll take zombies. At least with zombies you know where you stand (they want to eat you) and you can look up and see the sky in between attacks.
By now you’re probably wondering whether “Fallout” is really appropriate for children. So let’s be clear. For all its horror, this is a superb entertainment suitable for any tough-minded kid over the age of 10. It thrums along with finely wrought atmosphere and gripping suspense. If the characters aren’t exactly overburdened with complexity, they’re better drawn than many of the people one bumps into in the average thriller.
Strasser, a prolific writer for children and teenagers, writes with purpose and economy and structures his book intelligently: The scenes of prewar life give context and emotional weight to what happens in the shelter. Without the prewar material, the tension and misery of the drama in the shelter might be unbearable.My guess is that Strasser’s middle-grade readers know little about the Cuban missile crisis, and this exercise in “what if” should help them — in a way no textbook could — to understand a historical moment better known for what didn’t happen than for what did. By contrast, the author knows his material very well. He was 12 in 1962, and his dad built a bomb shelter in the family’s backyard. Given his experiences, it’s no wonder Strasser takes a strongly antiwar position, especially in an author’s note at book’s end. Thankfully, he had enough sense to leave most of the preachy tone out of his suspenseful