Wonderstruck: Brian Selznick
Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup: End of August Edition

The Eleventh Plague: Jeff Hirsch

Book: The Eleventh Plague
Author: Jeff Hirsch
Pages: 304
Age Range: 12 and up

51yEnqP5rJL._SL500_AA300_ The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch is straight-up post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. There are no zombies, mind-readers, or situations that conveniently take all of the adults out the picture. Instead, The Eleventh Plague is the story of a teenage boy struggling to survive in a bleak United States landscape, roughly 20 years after the Collapse of civilization and the death of most of the population from war and a superflu. 

The Eleventh Plague begins as Stephen Quinn and his father are burying Steve's grandfather. Within a few short hours Steve's dad is gravely injured, and Steve finds himself having to take charge for the first time in his life. The Quinns have spent all of Steve's life as salvagers, traveling up and down the eastern half of the country looking for useful items that they can trade for necessities. It's a hard life, but the only one Steve knows. When a chance encounter leads to Steve and his dad being taken in by the residents of a small, carefully hidden town, Steve finds his life changed forever.

Jeff Hirsch has created a post-apocalyptic world that feels disturbingly possible. The drama of the plague and the Collapse itself are past - having taken place before Steve was even born. But the world that the adults in The Eleventh Plague remember from their youth is the world that we're living in today. There are crumbling McDonalds restaurants, carefully salvaged books, and hand-knit sweaters.

This is a book that made me appreciate little things, like my ceiling fan, and think twice before letting any food go to waste (a bit like Life As We Knew It, in that regard, though the environmental situation is much less dire in The Eleventh Plague). There's a reference to the town only having a few notebooks left that really gave me pause. Without being heavy-handed about it, Hirsch paints a clear picture of what could happen, should wars and bioweapons get out of hand. I found myself lying in bed before going to sleep, thinking about what one would want to take to stock a small town, if one knew that a total Collapse of civilization was coming.

Setting the story significantly after the Collapse lets Hirsch focus on the characters and their physical challenges and moral dilemmas. Steve is complex, and not always wholly likeable. He pushes away people who are trying to him, and has a hard time letting go of a lifetime of bitter advice from his grandfather. But he's bright and ultimately loyal. It's enjoyable watching him grow up over the course of a few difficult weeks.

The supporting characters are also believably flawed, both teens and adults. I especially enjoyed one boy who cheerfully admits that he would have been on Ritalin before the Collapse.

The Eleventh Plague is fast-paced and well-plotted. Although it's sprinkled with interesting insights, I found myself reading quickly, to find out what would happen next. Although things wrap up well, one can imagine a companion novel about a different character coming in the future. I would read it.

Here are a couple of examples of Hirsch's writing:

"The slaver laughed. It sounded like a landslide, boulders tumbling together. He slapped his partner in the chest and they got on their feet and came toward us." (Page 30, ARC)

"The three of them laughed, but I didn't get it. The way they talked, like they were tossing a ball around in a game of keep-away, was confusing." (Page 75, ARC)

"As I scrubbed, I thought how easy it must have been when she and my dad were my age, back before the Collapse. Turn a faucet and out came hot water. Flick a switch and there was light. I wondered if it ever seemed like magic. In a way Jenny and Jackson and I were lucky. We couldn't miss what we'd never had." (Page 135, ARC)

Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, teens and adults, should give The Eleventh Plague a look. And really, anyone who enjoys coming of age novels or taut suspense should check this one out, too. Although it features survival in a post-apocalyptic setting, The Eleventh Plague is also about growing up, building relationships, and trying to do the right thing. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: September 1, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final book.

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.