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the dead & the gone: Susan Beth Pfeffer

Book: the dead & the gone
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer (blog)
Pages: 320
Age Range: 13 and up

Background: I was utterly and completely drawn in by the audio version of Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It, a post-apocalyptic story about the ensuing natural disasters after a massive meteor moves the moon slightly out of orbit. I lived and breathed the story of Miranda and her family, as they coped with increasing levels of horror and deprivation. I finished the book grateful for the little and not-so-little things in life, like electricity to read by, and chocolate, and sun-warmed skin.

When I heard that Susan Beth Pfeffer was writing a companion book set in New York City during the same crisis, I had to have it. I tried to win an ARC in a drawing on the author's blog, but was unsuccessful. Fortunately, I was able to acquire a copy during last week's NCTE conference. Then I made the mistake of starting the book during a free hour before dinner Saturday night, while still in New York. All evening, while I was out with friends, the book tugged virtually at my sleeve. When I got back to my hotel I sat up until 2:30 in the morning, because I had to finish. I couldn't leave Alex and his sisters hanging. Really, isn't that all you need to know to put it on your "to read" list?

No, you want more? Ok. I know it's early for a review, and I promise to post again closer to the June publication date, but I want to capture my thoughts now, while they're fresh. I promise to refrain from spoilers. If you don't want to hear more about this until next summer, I understand. Just stop reading here.

the dead and the goneReview: Susan Beth Pfeffer's the dead & the gone is the story of seventeen-year-old Alex Morales, younger son of Puerto Rican immigrant parents in New York City. When a meteor hits the moon, and causes chaos on Earth, Alex's Papi is attending a funeral in Puerto Rico. His older brother is in California with the Marines. By the time Alex gets home from work, his mother has been called in to her job at a hospital in Queens. As the days pass, she doesn't come home. Mami, Papi, and Carlos are among the "gone" (people who may or may not be dead, but cannot be reached). Alex is left responsible for his two younger sisters, devout fourteen-year-old Briana and spoiled twelve-year-old Julie.

As resources dwindle, and the city falls on hard times, Alex learns that he'll do anything, even terrible things, to protect and feed his sisters. He does get some help, particularly from the priests at his church and his Catholic school. But mostly, he takes the responsibility on himself. He agonizes over his decisions and the implications of the situation on his religious beliefs. He struggles to balance hope and faith against reality and necessity.

the dead & the gone is as starkly disturbing and compelling as Life As We Knew It (LAWKI). Setting this volume in a big city, in New York of all big cities, means that these characters aren't as shielded from larger events as the family from LAWKI. Alex and his sisters see the death around them - they can't avoid it by holing up in their own home. They have to be out, foraging for food and bartering goods. The dead and the gone addresses, somewhat, what happens to the larger economy when things start to fall apart. Alex is aware of the haves vs. the have nots, even as some social barriers break down. However, as in LAWKI, Pfeffer keeps things down to earth by showing us sibling rivalries, day-to-day deprivations, and touching moments of generosity.

There are some dramatic pluses to this be the second book about this post-apocalyptic world, set in a parallel time frame. Having already read LAWKI, I knew about some of the big picture climactic changes before Alex did. This foreshadowing ratcheted up the tension for me, as I wondered how the characters would cope with things that I knew were coming, and how the fact that they were in a big city would make things worse. As an example, I spent half the book wondering how Alex and his sisters were going to cope in an apartment, without a fireplace, when the weather got really cold. (Don't worry - I'm not telling.)

In one way, I didn't get as invested in the dead & the gone as I did in LAWKI. With LAWKI, I listened on audio, and lived in the book for a week, thinking about it between my walks. With the dead & the gone, I immersed myself all at one, and gulped the book down, reading faster and faster to find out what happened. I think that I'll need to read it again, and/or to listen to the audio when it's available. But I'll tell you this now: the dead & the gone gripped my attention completely, brought tears to my eyes, and made me think about the many things for which I am thankful. The characters, especially Alex and Julie, are three-dimensional, with strengths and flaws, and occasional unreasonable behaviors. In summary, LAWKI fans, this one is worth waiting for. And if you haven't read Life As We Knew It yet, you are in for a treat. But maybe wait until May, when the paperback comes out, so that you can read the books close together.

Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
Publication Date: June 2008
Source of Book: ARC from the publisher. Cover image from Amazon, courtesty Harcourt, Inc.
Other Blog Reviews: None that I've seen yet, but here is my review of the companion book, Life As We Knew It. You can also read an excerpt from the dead & the gone at the author's blog (it is not for the faint of heart or stomach). UPDATED to add: the first other review of the dead & the gone that I've seen is at Librarina. She likes it, too.
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© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.