The Eleventh Plague
Written by Jeff Hirsch
Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle Edition
Release Date: September 1, 2012
I began reading Jeff Hirsch’s debut novel with no small amount of trepidation as it is intended for Young Adults and I’m a not so young adult. Living in a place with a conservative political climate and a seemingly permanent spot on the “Top 10 Unemployed States in America” list also tends to make an endless parade of dystopian survival stories set in the near future seem a tad redundant. However, I was encouraged by the cover blurb from Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, which says: “The Eleventh Plague hits disturbingly close to home…An excellent, taut debut novel.” If I am being truthful, thus far I have only seen the film The Hunger Games, but I was impressed and view it as a sort of sensitive person’s bigger budget version of Battle Royale (which I love) with great costumes. Luckily, The Eleventh Plague more than lives up to her praise.
Biological warfare has wiped out two-thirds of the American population decades earlier, and as a result society has collapsed. Fifteen-year-old Stephen Quinn is only vaguely aware of a country ruled by a government, with running water and hospitals from the wistful stories passed down by those old enough to remember one. Opening the novel, he and his Dad are burying his grandfather together, with an unpredictable future ahead of them as “scavengers.” They have always lived a nomadic lifestyle scouring the desolate landscape for discarded items to sell/trade for survival under the stern guidance of an ex-Marine grandfather to keep them alive. Up until now, their family goals included eating, finding shelter against the elements, and avoiding others to stay out of trouble. But with the grandfather gone, they begin to wonder if there is more to life than surviving like baser animals.
A series of perils along the trail lead them to be invited to a place called Settler’s Landing and this is where the real story begins. Stephen finds himself in a seemingly ideal world of houses, regular meals, school, dating, and fitting in. He struggles with his old identity and the new and seeks to find his place within this loose settlement of families, tenuously grasping for a lifestyle that no longer exists. When trouble comes to Settler’s Landing, the conflict between his individual self-preservation instinct and his new obligations to the group make for an exciting climax and many thoughtful revelations.
This is a zombie, alien, vampire, etc. free YA book with minimal gratuitous violence and a romantic subplot that is thankfully secondary to the great character development and the political/sociological ideas inherent in a story like this one. Roaming within in a surreal backdrop of decaying Starbucks and dusty casinos, the characters are just as likable without supernatural forces to aid them and perhaps more so. While there are no big explosions or extended action scenes, daily life is unfamiliar enough to remain entertaining throughout the succinct 288 pages. It begs comparison on many levels with very adult The Road, (another standout book within the well-worn post-apocalyptic genre) which ruminates on multi-generational dilemmas of loss, rebuilding, and personal vs. social obligation et all. The Eleventh Plague also manages being way less depressing and nears optimism without being condensing to the current cultural zeitgeist that ponders an uncertain future, one plague at a time.