THE NEW YORK TIMES

 

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 narrative.

 

PUBLISHER'S WEELY  [STARRED REVIEW]

 

Strasser (Kill You Last) brings readers to the 1960s Long Island of his youth, with one crucial difference: in this story, the Cuban Missile Crisis leads Russia to bomb the U.S. The plot alternates between two threads set before and after the bomb drops; in the immediate aftermath, 11-year-old Scott, his family, and a handful of neighbors endure the increasingly difficult conditions in the subterranean bomb shelter Scott’s father built, waiting for radiation levels to fall. The format allows Strasser to have the best of both worlds. In the “before” chapters, he presents a vision of life during the Cold War that feels ripped from personal memory as Scott grows aware of racial prejudice, the prevailing “us vs. them” mentality toward Russia, and his own nascent sexuality (“You want to die without ever seeing a breast?” Scott’s snide friend Ronnie asks). Meanwhile, the “after” chapters are claustrophobic, heartbreaking, and at times ugly as civility breaks down among the few adult and children survivors. An eye-opening “what if” sceario about the human response to disaster. Ages 10–up.   ---  http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-7636-5534-1

 

KIRKUS [STARRED REVIEW]

 

Strasser once again combines terrific suspense with thoughtful depth when the bombs really do fall in this alternate-history Cuban missile crisis thriller.

 

Eleven-year-old Scott’s family becomes the laughingstock of their neighborhood when, worried about possible nuclear attack, they build a bomb shelter. However, when the Civil Defense siren sounds, sending them to the shelter, they can’t keep their neighbors out, even though they have enough food for only their own family. In chapters that alternate between their time in the shelter and the weeks leading up to the attack, the story reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. Scott and his friend Ronnie, the rather nasty neighborhood smartass, continue their friendly rivalry in the shelter, while their parents reveal much about their own personalities. The book examines racism; when Scott’s mother becomes so seriously injured that it seems she will not survive, their neighbor wants to put both her and the family’s black maid out of the shelter to die. The author peppers the narrative with tidbits from the early ’60s, such as Tang, MAD magazine and talk of “Ruskies,” “Commies” and duck-and-cover school drills. Scott’s believably childlike narration recounts events and adults’ reactions to them as he understands them.

 

This riveting examination of things important to a boy suddenly thrust into an adult catastrophe is un-put-down-able. (Thriller. 10-14)

 

 

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

It is all too easy, half a century on, to regard the coruscating terror of ordinary Americans during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a dry historical fact rather than a traumatic lived experience. The novelist Todd Strasser, who was a boy at the time, and whose family preparations for nuclear war included building a bomb shelter under their suburban ranch house, has evidently not forgotten the intensity of 1962. Memory here has given rise to a gripping and superbly constructed novel for sophisticated young readers ages 10 and older. In "Fallout" (Candlewick, 258 pages, $16.99), however, the Russians really do drop the bomb, and when the sirens wail, Scott Porter and his parents and little brother, rushing to their homemade bunker, are almost overwhelmed by neighbors frantic to gain refuge in the area's only fallout shelter.

 

There's not a word out of place in this evocative book, which toggles between the ever-more-dire predicament of the people in the overfilled bunker and the placid neighborhood during the weeks before the crisis. Mr. Strasser's skill at ratcheting up the tension is, if anything, exceeded by his ability to conjure midcentury ways of thinking—and a vanished culture in which aspirational fathers drank Dubonnet, beatniks were a present-tense curiosity, and children were amazed at the very idea of homosexuality.

 

BOOKLIST

 

Inspired by the summer of 1962 when his family built a bomb shelter, Strasser’s alternate-history novel about the Cuban missile crisis is a suspenseful, quietly emotional account of the unthinkable: nuclear war. Eleven-year-old Scott is the only kid on the block with a bomb shelter. Though the neighborhood kids tease, while their parents act disdainful, when the sirens sound, they mob the shelter and force their way in. After a furious struggle, during which Scott’s mother is seriously injured, the shelter is sealed with 10 people inside, 6 more than planned for and with many more left outside. As time passes and the supplies dwindle, grief, guilt, and fear turn the relationships among the adults ugly, even sparking talks of who should be put out. Strasser nicely contrasts this oppressive life, where Scott becomes aware of adult conflicts, with his innocence during the weeks leading up to the bomb. The titular fallout isn’t just the environmental aftermath of the nuclear bomb but the survivors’ emotional devastation, believably filtered through Scott’s sensitive but well-rendered child’s perspective.

 

 

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL

 

Gr 5-8–“Dad had a gun. Mom was letting us eat in the den. Could there be any clearer signs that the end of the world was approaching?” During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Scott’s father builds a bomb shelter in their backyard. Most of the neighbors ridicule the idea, but the day the bombs do go off, those same neighbors try desperately to get into the shelter. A few of them do get in, along with Scott’s family, while the rest perish outside. The extra people, along with the lack of supplies, make for cramped, uncomfortable conditions, and tempers flare. They might be safe now, but what awaits them if they ever leave? The chapters alternate between the current conditions in the shelter and the months leading up to the bombs dropping. Before, Scott lives a normal sixth-grader’s life, but in the back of everyone’s minds are the worries about the Russians and their nuclear missiles. Scott’s friend Ronny challenges him to some neighborhood mischief, justifying it with, “We might not be here tomorrow.” Eventually Scott and Ronny have a knock-down fight, stopping only when Scott’s father pulls them apart. At the end of the story, the shelter’s inhabitants leave to find what’s left of their world. The alternating chapters might be confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm. Enough background about the time period is woven into the story so children unfamiliar with the Cuban Missile Crisis will have a basic knowledge of what happened. A well-written, compelling story with an interesting twist on how history might have turned out.

 

THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

 

Alternative history has been largely coopted by steampunk of late, but here Strasser offers a far less fanciful take on the recent past—a what-if reconsideration of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Scott Porter’s dad takes the threat of nuclear war seriously, and under the eye of his bemused neighbors, he constructs a bomb shelter under his sons’ new bedroom addition. His precaution is justified on the night the sirens blare and he and his family scramble for safety through the trapdoor in the closet floor. Nearby neighbors who know of the shelter race to claim a place, and by the time Mr. Porter manages to shut the hatch, the space and provisions planned for four people must now accommodate eleven. The ensemble drama that follows, interspersed with chapters on the lead-up to the disaster, is gut-wrenchingly credible. The water tank malfunctions; nobody grabbed a watch or a clock in the midnight evacuation, so nobody can judge elapsed time; the first aid kit is woefully inadequate to helping them care for Mrs. Porter, who suffered a severe head injury on her descent into the shelter. And of course, there’s ambiguity of leadership, vacillation between crushing boredom and emotional outbursts and threats, the abandonment of modesty, and the persistent fear that survival might be more horrifying than death. This title gains its power not simply from its precise detailing of disaster, but from the nuanced treatment of the entire cast of castaways, whose personal backstories are skillfully intertwined with their current behaviors. Accessible to a range of readers, this could be a provocative classroom read as well as a natural pick for disaster fans.

 

THE HORN BOOK

 

The Cuban Missile Crisis has received some excellent treatment in children’s literature in recent years—The Fire-Eaters by David Almond; Rex Zero and the End of the World by Tim Wynne-Jones; Countdown by Deborah Wiles—but Strasser manages to put his own unique spin on the situation by imagining what might have happened if nuclear war had broken out. Scott’s father is one of the few that built his own bomb shelter. He’s ridiculed for it, but when the air raid sirens go off, several neighbors force their way into the shelter.  Supplies originally meant for four people now must cover ten. Of course, things go from bad to worse, exposing the best and worst of human behavior, while elevating the drama and suspense. Alternating chapters tell the story of the months leading up to that tense week and a half in the bomb shelter, allowing the author to vividly depict the 1960s setting, create complex characters, and build the backstory. An interesting author’s note describes the inspiration for this novel: his own family’s backyard bomb shelter. Strasser has crafted a memorable piece of alternative history that will leave readers pondering the characters and their choices long after the last page is turned.

 

 

Richie's Picks: FALLOUT [FIVE STARS]

 

"Yes, we're gonna have a wingding

A summer smoker underground

It's just a dugout that my dad built

In case the Reds decide to push the button down."

-- Donald Fagan, "The New Frontier"

 

"The Russians were evil.  Their chubby bald-headed  leader,  Nikita Khrushchev, had crooked teeth and an ugly gap between the front  two, which showed that Russians didn't even believe in orthodontia.  And if  that didn't make him anti-American enough, there was the time he'd come to the  United Nations and banged his shoe on the rostrum, which proved beyond a doubt  that the Commies were unpredictable, violent, and crazy enough to blow us  all up."

 

"We'll break down these walls with our music and our  art" -- from a prayer during the opening ceremony at the Enchanted  Forest

transformational music and arts festival

 

I pause from my reading to watch some of the more talented  dancers gyrating amidst the redwoods. It's early evening but, being just days  beyond the solstice, it is still quite warm and there will still  be light for at least another hour.

 

From my perspective, this is a young crowd.  You  really need to scan the scene closely to see those who might have been  alive during the Summer of Love, no less recall the days of the Cuban  Missile Crisis.  There's one.  A couple more over there, but not  many.

 

It's a really relaxed vibe at this weekend festival in the  northern California coastal hills.  Officially a no-alcohol venue, the vast  majority here are blissed out on pot and redwoods, friendships and  frisbees, marathon dancing to the electronic music, and a killer,  thrumming speaker system that is shaking the ground under me.

 

And here I sit, amidst the peaceful play of a young  generation, reading a tense story directly  related to what was the scariest aspect of my childhood --  the threat of nuclear war, and those air raid drills where you'd duck and cover  under your school desk as if that would mitigate the effects of a nuclear bomb  attack.

 

The world has made it this far, thanks to the  negotiations that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis of my childhood.  But in  the alternative world in which Todd Strasser's FALLOUT takes place,  the Cuban Missile Crisis does, in fact, lead to nuclear war.

 

"The metal rungs hurt the bottoms of my bare feet as I lower  myself.  The dark air in the shelter is cool and damp and smells like  mildew.  Suddenly boxes and bags of things shower down, bouncing off my  head and arms, and falling into the shadows below.  I cry out in surprise,  even though it  doesn't really hurt.  Already Mom's feet are on the rungs  just above me.

"'Hurry!' Dad yells.

"'Ow!' Sparky cries, and I wonder if Dad accidentally banged  him into something as he tried to lower him through the trapdoor.

"One of my  feet touches the cold concrete floor; the other steps on a box that collapses  with a crunch.

''In there!' a man's voice shouts.

"Above me, Mom yells, 'Careful, Edward!'"

 

I knew how good FALLOUT was going to be when I found  myself toying with the idea of putting it down at the end of the first  chapter.   by that point, it was already making me feel incredibly  uncomfortable.  Queasy, in fact.

 

Scott's father had a fallout shelter built under the  addition to their home.  It's the only one in  the American  neighborhood in which they live. When nuclear war breaks out, and Scott,  his parents, and his little brother scramble to get down into the shelter,  some neighbors who know about it break into their house and force  their way into the shelter.  The door is sealed and time below ground  begins.

 

But the supplies that have been stockpiled in the  shelter are only meant to support four lives, not this crowd.  Thus, the  two weeks that need to be spent in the shelter -- while the radiation levels  outside decrease sufficiently to permit going out without assuredly dying --  provide an oft-ugly look at human nature when fear, hunger,  claustrophobia, prejudice, and survival instincts all set in.

 

Told from Scott's perspective, the chapters in FALLOUT  alternate between the preceding months, where we get to know these  characters in their more normal states of being, and the days in the  shelter that get more and more tense as the lack of food and supplies force  decisions to be hammered out and permit our seeing a very dark side of  humankind.

 

And what I'm thinking about, as I gaze across this crowd  of beautiful young people, and think about my own children who are  part of this generation, is how, fifty-one years after the Cuban  Missile Crisis brought us to the verge of nuclear war, there  remain thousands of nuclear warheads in the world today.  Sadly,  the hatred in the world that divides countries and religious groups, combined  with the existence of these weapons, assures us that the threat of  nuclear war remains as ever-presently real now as it was back then.

 

"And when I really get to know  you We'll open up the doors and climb into the dawn" -- Donald Fagan

 

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