In 1962, the Cold War was in full swing and tensions and fear were rampant throughout the country. Would the Russians drop a bomb? Fire missiles? What would happen if they did? This is the question Strasser takes on in his alt-history novel, Fallout, where he imagines the fate of one family—the only family on the block with a fallout shelter—after a nuclear bomb is dropped.
When the sirens go off, 11-year-old Scott and his little brother are whisked into the shelter, deep below the floor of their playroom. Seized by panic, neighbors who scoffed at Scott’s dad for building the shelter in the first place, now fight to gain entry, to gain sanctuary. The shelter, however, is only stocked with supplies for 4, so Scott’s dad scrambles to lock out the pleading neighbors. A few make it in, and in the frenzied chaos of this, Scott’s mother is knocked from the ladder and lies prone on the cement floor, unnaturally still. 10 people in total are trapped below ground. And then the waiting begins: waiting for radiation levels to drop so they can emerge from their hole to face who-knows-what. Total annihilation? A Communist regime? No food, family, or friends? Radioactive everything? Other survivors?
This is a survival tale rather than a war saga, and the story quickly becomes one of the psychological fallout caused by being trapped in a small space with limited resources. Told from Scott’s point of view, the narrative alternates chapters between life before the bomb and afterwards in the shelter. The pre-bomb chapters create a nice break in the tensions building below ground, in addition to laying out backstories and context for the characters. The shelter chapters are marked by volatility, created primarily by the adults, who fight over who is in charge, how best to ration the supplies, and whether people should be “voted out” so that the group has a greater chance of survival. Things turn ugly fast. I was surprised by how fast, actually. In theory, it takes about 2 weeks for radiation levels to drop to a safe level; but below ground, there’s no way to keep track of time. Within a couple of days, morale is on the way out. As is dignity—the toilet is an exposed bucket and toilet paper and water are in short supply. The anxiety is palpable, no less so for the reader, herself; and it is this that makes Strasser’s decision to revisit events leading up to the bomb a most welcome escape. He knows how to pace his story and maintain its atmosphere without letting it overwhelm the narrative.
Verdict? A strong 4 out of 5 stars, if I gave out stars. Though I did not fall in love with this book, I thought it was an interesting and unique take on both survival and historical fiction that is sure to be a hit with fans of either. It made me want to revisit Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea, which I whole-heartedly recommend to readers interested in American history, quirky female protagonists, or good storytelling. These two novels would make a nice pairing, actually, as Green Glass Sea is the story of a girl living on Los Alamos in 1943, as nuclear weapons are being developed as part of the Manhattan Project, and Fallout picks up the baton twenty years later. My final thought on Fallout is how I appreciated the way Strasser depicts the ambiguous threat of war on children, who don’t entirely understand what’s going on. They know it’s bad and scary, but it also serves as a green light for rule-breaking because, “we could all be dead tomorrow.” Echos of this mentality resurface in their adult counterparts in the subterranean shelter, truly turning the disparate chapters of this novel into a cohesive whole.