During Dewey’s Readathon last month, I listened to The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick on audio anytime I wasn’t able to be reading a book. This what-if science fiction novel for middle-graders is so compelling that I finished the entire book in one day!
Charlie is enjoying a rare view of the Northern Lights on New Year’s Eve with his mother and sister when there is a sudden bright flash, and all the power goes out. On the baseball field where most of his little town in northern New Hampshire is watching the lights, cars stop running, headlights wink out, and even flashlights quit working. Over the next days – and weeks – the power stays out, and Charlie’s town slowly realizes the power is out everywhere – no electricity, gas-powered vehicles don’t work, no radio, and even batteries don’t work. Charlie’s science teacher thinks it was caused by solar flares.
Isolated and frightened, Charlie and his community first band together to help each other, sharing firewood and food and lending a hand where needed. Not everyone is interested in working together, though. There is an anti-government, survivalist compound on the outskirts of town, and they are well prepared for this kind of disaster and have no intention of sharing anything. They also question the authority of the town’s part-time deputy, who has taken on the role of leader during the emergency. Things really get dangerous when someone burns down the only store in town because its owners are Jewish.
Without the store – and its pharmacy – Charlie gets worried about his mother. She is a diabetic and will run out of insulin soon, and there is nowhere else nearby to get any. Determined to save her, Charlie sets off on skis for a larger town 50 miles to the south, where there is a hospital and he hopes he might find medicine. He is setting off for the unknown, though, and could just as likely find anarchy and violence in the bigger town.
I was completely engrossed in this suspenseful story right from the beginning. It has a post-apocalyptic feeling to it, even though you don’t know whether this situation will turn out to be temporary or permanent. The characters feel real, and I was rooting Charlie on to succeed in his mission. There is plenty of action and tension in the story, but it is also an in-depth study of human nature, examining issues of family, community, and tolerance. I was glued to my iPod from beginning to end of this gripping story and want to read more of Philbrick’s novels.
NOTE: When I checked for other novels Philbrick has written, I realized I have read one of them – Zaneand the Hurricane – which was also excellent.