When I started this book last week, I was pretty well in the anti-zombie camp. I think my exact words on Google + were:
I’m trying to get through this zombie novel right now and having this realization that I’m not really into the whole zombie fad. I mean, I’m as sure as the next person that the zombie apocalypse is right around the corner – I just don’t find it that interesting to read about.
Well I’ll be damned if this book didn’t change my mind. The recommendation to read it came from a source that has rarely let me down – John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” on his blog Whatever (http://whatever.scalzi.com/category/big-idea/) (and of course, as I went to get the link for you, my attention was caught by yet another book that will surely land on my kindle in a few minutes…). Scalzi seems to have the ability to pick books that I find devastatingly good (see The Magician and its heart-wrenching sequel The Magician King, by Lev Grossman), as well as those with delightfully plucky heroines (like the Norwegian tribute Icefall, by Matthew J Kirby and The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell), who manage to cheer me up even during the long slow descent into winter.
Dearly, Departed has been in my queue for a while, and by all accounts, I should have picked it up a month ago; it’s a young adult novel with a plucky heroine – two things I love! But something was stopping me, and that something, it turns out, was zombies.
I’m not into horror. When I was a kid, and devouring anything and everything I could find in the fiction section of the library, I ran across a book, the name of which I can’t quite grasp, about a little girl who meets the ghost of another child who has drowned in a lake. It was called something like…Don’t forget Alice…and all these years later, an image from the end of the book, where the ghost tries to drown the girl who has befriended her has, well, haunted me. What can I say? I’m a wuss. I doubt at this point I’m going to outgrow my overactive imagination, so when confronted with the desire to read a book about flesh-eating monsters, I admit – I balked.
Fortunately, curiosity has almost always outweighed common sense, and I decided to give Habel’s novel a chance. I’m glad I did. As Habel says in her Author’s note, “….thanks are due to everyone who ever made me love zombies or seriously think about the lessons that the dead and the weird have to teach us.” I think she sums up the experience for me nicely. I don’t like zombies, Victorians, or steam punk, but I found this book irresistible, in part because the message stretched far beyond any of those things.
The first moment she had me was this, “Minutes later we were in Aunt Gene’s carriage, Pam compulsively adjusting her bonnet, me meditating upon all of the ways it might be possible to kill myself with the in-cab stylus (p 48).” That’s when I knew this girl, Nora Dearly, and I were going to get on just fine. I admit I’ve always had a weakness for girls who can’t find it in themselves to bend to the horrible, repressive (or even just horribly boring) standards of their time. The long dresses, the staying silent, the chaste, dull, doll-like quality that the Victorian era forced upon women – let’s just say I would have failed miserably at keeping my mouth shut and doing needlepoint, and I can relate to the protagonist’s desire for a life beyond merely being a man’s wife.
What really got me though, was that Nora’s best friend, Pam, who could have been weepy…annoying…helpless… ended up being terrific in her own right. Let’s hear it for a sidekick taking the situation (in this case, a zombie apocalypse) into her own hands with grace, poise, and a wicked sense of humor! This happens so rarely for supporting characters. And that’s so unlike real life, where we each get to be the hero of our own story, in some sense or another; I really believe that no matter who you are, you can think of a moment when you had the upper hand, where you stood up for someone, where you took control with poise and wit, and its high time an author recognized this innate ability for each of us to be so strong. (I’m not saying this is the first time ever in the history of literature this has ever happened – just that it’s less common, with the lonely hero often romanticized – and that I especially appreciate it in a book aimed at the YA audience. Because if adolescence is not a time to rely on your friends’ ability to be heroes, I don’t know when is…)
If all of that isn’t enough to convince you that this debut novel is worth a read, let me leave you with one of my favorite lines (and a sentiment shared by anyone who has had parents…), “I shook my head, and committed a note to memory: If parents survive, kill them (p 332).”
If you’re interested in reading more about the author, check her out at liahabel.com