Poetry Friday

This poem came up in a listserv conversation today, and I fell in love with it.  What a beautiful sentiment, and one I surely needed after reading and reviewing “the dead & the gone”.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

the dead & the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Back in January I read and reviewed Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, which scared the bejeezus out of me. The story continues to haunt me to this day and I looked forward to reading the companion novel, the dead and the gone, as soon as it was available. I was recently lucky enough to get a copy of the UK edition of the novel (aside here- why are some books published in the UK, in paperback, first?!). I didn’t read it right away, because I had to make sure I was able to handle the heavy material. Neither novel is a quick, fun read and I had to be prepared to deal with the frightening plot that I knew was in store for me.

In the dead and the gone we meet Alex Morales, a seventeen-year old high school junior who lives in New York City when the asteroid hits the moon. He is working at a pizza parlor when the asteroid hits, and because it’s cloudy out, isn’t even aware of what is happening. Like Miranda in Life As We Knew It, Alex is wrapped up in his own problems- his mom is working overtime at a hospital in Queens, Dad is at a funeral in Puerto Rico, and his older brother is deployed in the Marines. Alex is concentrating on maintaining his good grades, getting into college, and trying to look after his two younger sisters. When he gets home from work, the power is out, the cable is out, and no one is broadcasting on the radio. Days pass, and Alex and his sisters begins to realize they are alone. Except for one brief phone call from older brother Carlos, letting them know he is being deployed to Texas, and a static-filled phone call that may have been Papi from Puerto Rico, Alex and his sisters are completely abandoned. They struggle to care for each other and deal with their own emotions. Each sibling faces reality differently: Julie is an impetuous and rebellious thirteen-year old looking to her older siblings for guidance, Bri is a devout Catholic convinced Santa madre de dias will bring them a miracle, and Alex is a mature and loving older brother devoted to saving his sisters. As weeks and months pass, Alex is faced with decisions that not seventeen-year old boy should ever have to face and he deals with each one as best he can. The scene at Yankee Stadium is especially difficult to read and I had a hard time getting through it.

As in Life As We Knew It, the first few days after the asteroid hits aren’t too bad. But chaos takes hold of the city, and it’s a whole different game than out in rural Pennsylvania with Miranda. Unlike Life As We Knew It, the dead and the gone deals with many class issues. Alex and his family are not rich or powerful, and do not live in a wealthy part of New York. When people begin evacuating NYC, they are permitted to leave only if they have the money or connections to do so. Alex, Bri, and Julie are left to fend for themselves.

Within only weeks, food, water, and warm clothing take the place of money and bartering is the new economy. In order to keep bringing in enough food for his sisters, Alex is forced to begin “body-shopping”, a horrible experience requiring him to steal from the fresh bodies that pile up on the streets day after day. However, he is willing to do anything he has to in order to ensure his sisters’ survival.

Throughout the novel, the Morales’ strong Catholic faith is what keeps them going. Though Bri is especially devout (Mami hoped she would have a vocation), all three children attend Catholic school and Mass every Sunday in normal times. Their faith and the faith of their religious leaders helps them survive in more ways than they ever would have thought possible. However, at times their faith is also their downfall.

the dead and the gone is a gripping, haunting, heartbreaking story that is all too realistic. The New York setting allows Pfeffer to tell the same story as she did in Life As We Knew It, but in a drastically different way. While reader of LAWKI will recognize many of the same effects of the asteroid as they saw in LAWKI, the outcome is very different in the tri-state area. This companion novel would be a frightening read on its own, and readers could certainly read it as a stand-alone novel. However, paired with Life As We Knew It, the dead and the gone is absolutely gripping- the harrowing parallel stories of Miranda and Alex will have you making an emergency plan and stocking up on canned goods.

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