Tag Archives: survival

Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf; 336 pages; $24.95).

           

The End Of The World As We Know It does not necessarily mean The End.  In The Stand, Stephen King unleashed a flu epidemic, “Captain Tripps,” onto mankind, killing billions.  Some possessed a natural immunity to the disease.  These survivors were central in the fight between good and evil.  In the end, Las Vegas and the “Darkman” were obliterated, but life went on.

Cormac McCarthy also wrote about The End Of Time.  In his bleak and powerful novel The Road, an unnamed father and son journeyed through a post-apocalyptic and utterly unrecognizable landscape.  McCarthy used nuclear war instead of a disease but his characters also struggled, this time against angry survivors who were hell-bent on making a new world as they saw fit.

Yet, in both these ravaged and savage landscapes, pockets of humanity still existed; hope lived on.  As it does in Peter Heller’s transcendent and beautifully lyric debut The Dog Stars.

Nine years before The Dog Stars begins a flu epidemic wiped out most of the world’s population.  Think something like this is just fiction?  Look up the 1918 Spanish flu, and I guarantee you will get chills.  In Heller’s story, a superbug mutated and combined with bird flu.  The first cases of the Africanized bird flue appeared in London; in all likelihood, though, the virus originated at a national weapons lab.  Not long after, the flu had spread everywhere.  Chaos erupted.  If flu were not enough, another catastrophe got added to the mix.  A blood disease similar to HIV wreaked havoc on those who survived the flu.

You can imagine the kind of world left behind.  It’s a kill-or-be-killed existence, something Heller’s protagonist, Hig, knows all too well. As Heller writes, “Old rules are done Hig.  Went the way of the woodpecker.  Gone with the glaciers and the government.  New world now.  New world new rules.  Never ever negotiate.”

Hig is an “old man at forty” who lost his wife and their unborn child to the flu.  Hig’s narrative is unconventional as Heller uses flashbacks and sometimes strange streams of consciousness to tell us his story.  After the flu struck, encephalitis felled Hig.  “Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105,” Hig explains, “I know it cooked my brains.”  There is no pattern to Hig’s thoughts.  They are often jumbled and mish-mashed, often without segue from one thought to the next.  He begins many of his sentences with “and” or “so” and most of his thoughts are fragments.  What Hig has lived through and what he has lost speak to us from the page.  Heller uses a very powerful device, and Hig just would not be Hig without it.

After living through The End, we would try to make a home in a place of familiarity and safety.  That is exactly what Hig does.  He makes his home at a small, abandoned airport, where he sleeps under the stars with his faithful old dog, Jasper.  He shares the airport with Bangley, his neighbor and “good ole boy,” who often saves Hig’s “bacon.” Bangley needs Hig because Hig pilots an eighty-year-old 1956 (do the math and the year is about 2036) Cessna that he nicknames “the Beast.”  Hig and Jasper patrol the airport’s perimeter, which means Hig can see who or what is coming before the who or what gets there.  Most of the time.

In the novel’s most violent episode, nine people stalk Hig as he returns from a hunt.  Bangley warns him from his spot on a tower and coaches Hig on what to do.  Remember this is a kill-or-be-killed world.  A firefight ensues.  One of the stalkers is a young boy, who Hig kills.  Killing may come easy for Bangley, but it is hard for Hig. He is losing hope, especially as he sees the blood disease slowly kill the Mennonite families who live close to the airport and who he furnishes some supplies.

Hig knows he has to leave the airport and Bangley to restore his faith.  A few years ago, he heard a voice over the radio while flying.  It was a woman’s voice who referenced the Grand Junction airport.  Hig is determined to go there and to find out what is out there, if anything.  Heller shows that sometimes one must take a leap of faith.  Sometimes one has to venture out into the unknown.

Because Hig flies a plane, readers are given a birds’ eye view of what is below.  Climate change has made our world almost unrecognizable and alien.  Few fish exist.  Droughts are common.  Animals such as bears, cows, and elk are rare.  Birds are almost extinct.  “The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah.  The tinmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove.  Sad but.  Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.”

No wonder Hig thinks of dinosaurs: “I thought of a painting I had seen at the natural history museum in Denver.  A bunch of mixed dinosaurs, I remember triceratops, fleeing across a sparse plain pursued by fire, and volcanoes erupting in the background.  I wonder if they could run as fast as a mama grizzly or a deer.”

Holding on to memories can go far in keeping a person alive.  Hig is testament to this belief.  Yet, he must let go of the past in order to embrace his future.  In a world devastated by violence, flu, and climate change, sometimes a person has to take certain liberties, especially if he no longer remembers the names of constellations.  Sometimes, like Hig, we must make it up as we go along.  In a time when there are no rules, Hig has to decide what his rules are; only then can he restore his lost hope.  The Dog Stars reminds us that even when mankind has been wiped out, humanity never truly dies.

Heller contrasts violent brutality, charred cities, and empty houses with pastoral scenes of nature.  There is such beauty in this story, even when everything is dead or dying.  Heller seems to relay an underlying message for readers: Take care of the Earth before his fictional story becomes an actual reality.  Cold milk, fresh apples, a touch, a faithful dog, naming the stars, going fishing, a bird call–the fragile stuff of everyday life.

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Saving Grace

Saving Grace

 The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books; 288 pages; $24.99).

The sea can be unforgiving, mysterious, dangerous, and even brutal.  The ocean can cool and renew us, yet it also has the power to kill.  The water may look inviting, but that same liquid can be deceiving.  Curiously, the sea can be a metaphor for life.  Sometimes it’s sink or swim.  Sometimes we must dogpaddle to stay afloat.  Sometimes we are in danger of going under.

 

Sometimes we must make horrible choices in order to survive.  Such is the case in Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut The Lifeboat.  The phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” never rang truer.  Rogan’s main character, Grace Winter, despite her faults, is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in a long time.

 

Grace manages to live through an excruciating ordeal, one in which many die.  The Lifeboat is chilling as Grace and others must struggle and sacrifice in order to survive.

When Rogan introduces us to Grace, she is widow on trial, along with two other women, for murder.  Her lawyers urge Grace to write an account of what occurred.  She reluctantly agrees and begins a diary.  Her narrative is the basis for Rogan’s story.

 

While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914, there is an explosion on board the Empress Alexandra.  People shove others out of the way to get on lifeboats.  Grace’s new husband, Henry, forces her onto Lifeboat 14, but he does not follow.   Rogan draws eerily similar comparisons to Titanic, yet this is no love story.  Far from it.

 

Grace recalls, “There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage….”  A toddler reaches out to her, but neither Grace nor any of the others save the child.  This is the first instance where the reader notices how cold and calculating Grace really is.  There is a detachment to her.  Perhaps it is her lack of emotion that helps her survive.

 

Many people are alive in the water.  Three swimmers approach the boat.  On the orders of an officer from the ship, Mr. Hardie, the oarsmen beat the men to death with the oars.  It is truly every man for himself.  The simple, hard fact is that “we could not save everybody and save ourselves.”

 

Mr. Hardie emerges as leader.  This makes sense given he knows the water.  Grace has confidence in his abilities.  In her eyes, Mr. Hardie “knew about this world of water” and “spoke its language.”  The less she understands his “rough seaman’s voice,” “the greater the possibility” that the sea understands him.  Out of necessity, Mr. Hardie makes some tough decisions.  Grace, though, perseveres in her support for him, or at least at first.

 

Because the boat is taking on water, it, in all likelihood, will sink.  The lifeboat supposedly has a capacity of 39 people and holds 38.  In actuality, the lifeboat is capable of holding much less than 39 people.

 

The lifeboat is overcrowded, a fact that is obvious to everyone.  Mr. Hardie asks for volunteers.  Several men and women jump out and into the sea to their deaths.  Soon, Mr. Hardie’s actions are questioned, especially by two women, Mrs. Grant and Hannah.  Mrs. Grant is appalled when Mr. Hardie does not turn back for the child.  She calls him a brute.  Just like that, Grace explains, “Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.”

 

A power struggle unfolds as food and water, necessities for survival, are hard to come by.  Grace’s allegiance to Mr. Hardie teeters.  It becomes obvious that she will support whoever suits her needs best.  She will cheer whoever has the advantage.  Clearly, Grace is interested only in saving herself.

 

The situation on the lifeboat grows bleaker.  At one point, a flock of birds falls dead into the lifeboat.  Both men and women eat the birds and gnaw the bones until they are bare of meat.  Blood runs down their chins.  Such a thing is implausible to me.  I wonder if this might be a veiled reference to cannibalism.  Perhaps the reality of the situation is such that Grace is unwilling and unable to call it what it truly is.

 

You just cannot trust Grace; she is definitely an unreliable narrator.  She often tells half-truths and even lies.  “It’s my experience that we can come up with five reasons why something happened, and the truth will always be the sixth,” she confides.  If this is part of her nature or if it is a result of the tragedy, Rogan chooses not to reveal.  It is through the eyes of the other survivors that Grace comes across as callous and manipulative.  Her cold and calculating nature is nothing new, however, as Rogan reveals.  Grace used these same tactics to lure her husband from another woman.  If you guess he came from money, you are correct.

Rogan plays with Grace’s memory and history in this novel.  When the others discount a memory on the stand, she emphatically denies what they say.  Grace’s memory and history are at odds.  Grace also retreats into herself on the lifeboat.  She withdraws into her own mind to what she calls the “Winter Palace.”  Her retreat may partly explain why she has no recollection of certain events.  Then again, maybe it is her plan all along.  One thing is certain, though: over time, the situation on the lifeboat grows more tenuous and more perilous.

 

The power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Mrs. Grant and Hannah comes to a head.  Grace plays a major role in this battle, which is the reason she is on trial.  Rogan writes this with suspense.

 

It is interesting that three women are on trial.  If circumstances had been different, I do not feel Mr. Hardie would be accused of murder.  It is as if, in 1914 at least, a woman’s place was to create, sustain, and nurture life.  Not take it.  People expect a man to fight, even defend himself if the scenario demands.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for a woman?

 

A lifeboat takes on ironic meanings in Rogan’s novel.  Lifeboats are lifesaving vessels.  They are places of refuge and salvation.  In this book, though, the lifeboat takes on a whole different sense.  It becomes a deathtrap.

 

I recommend The Lifeboat to anyone who is fascinated with Titanic.  I also would suggest the novel for those who enjoy Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  I do want to warn you that there is no romance, no magic here.  The Lifeboat is sometimes bloody, sometimes chilling, and always shocking.  It will literally give you goosebumps.

 

More than anything, Grace Winter is a survivor, and you must respect her for having the will to save herself.  Grace never gives up.  Whether you are at sea or navigating the shark-infested waters of life, Grace can teach us all something.  Sometimes we all have to struggle in order to get through this life.

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