A small England Community fights for survival when a solar flare wipes out all sources of power, in this taut thriller with a 12-year-old hero.
The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick. Scholastic, 2015, 176 pages
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 12-15, especially reluctant readers
The whole town of Harmony, NH, is gathered at the ball park on New Years Eve to see a spectacular display of the Northern Lights. Suddenly, a bolt of light brighter than day bursts upon them, and directly after the world goes dark. Not even flashlights will work; batteries and generators are useless. The solar flare has apparently reversed the polar gravitational fields and all forms of electrical power are dead. The world is reduced to communities, small and great, who must band together to survive. Charlie Cobb and his family are doing okay until their mother, a diabetic, runs out of pills and Charlie must make a perilous journey to find another supply. While he’s gone the militia-style Bragg family attempts to establish a kingdom with their patriarch as king.
Terse and tense, this is a quick read that reluctant readers will devour. It’s also fairly depressing, especially with the afterword explaining that something similar to a disastrous solar flare could happen (thanks, Mr. Philbrick). But Charlie steps up to responsibility in an admirable manner, and one character has an opportunity to lay down his life for his friends. The big weakness is the villain, a pastiche of every cliché about gun-totin’, conspiracy-mongerin’, racist patriarchs ever featured in the New York Times. Also, the conclusion is a bit facile, however reassuring. The story is a useful look at the veneer of civilization, inviting discussion about how thin it really is. It’s also clean as the driven snow, which Harmony NH has far too much of.
Cautions: violence (disturbing scenes, such as bodies encountered outside the town)
Overall rating: 3.75 (out of 5)
Categories: Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Character Qualities
Cover image from Barnes & Noble