Ashfall (Mike Mullin) 4*

ashfallAfter last year’s very special week of earthquake + hurricane here in DC, I put together an emergency bag in my hall closet.  It contains my passport, cash, handwritten contact list, a detailed map, a bottle of bleach for water purification (12 drops per gallon, folks), a bigass hunting knife with compass and firesteel in the handle, mylar emergency blankets, hand-powered radio and flashlights, instructions for building a solar oven, and assorted other usefuls.

Sadly, this book has made me realize that I’m going to get killed and eaten by cannibals despite the contents of my hall closet.

Ashfall basically inhabits the world of The Road, except that the characters have names, the cataclysm has a realistic explanation, and the reader has a reason to enjoy the story.  This was one of those books that grew on me as I read it.  Mullin takes care to show humanity in all its postures, and he has a real talent for sketching memorable minor characters.  With just a few telling details, we feel the menace of the escaped convict, the exhaustion of the small-town mayor, the compassionate fury of a rescue worker, and the hard-nosed determination of a gun-toting librarian.

When the entire world has become a trauma ward, it can be hard for any particular loss to stand out, but Ashfall finds the nooks and nuances of grief.  All the characters in the book, even the little kids, know that pragmatism should crowd out grief — that there is simply no time for the soft stuff when survival is at stake — yet grief is as unyielding and indiscriminate as the ash that covers the whole world.  Darla, the smartest and most capable character in this book, never stops moving, but in the grip of grief she becomes a smart and capable person who needs a live rabbit as an emotional crutch.  Yes, she needs a rabbit.  It’s absurd, and it’s believable, and it’s real.

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