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PG-13: Risky Reads
Fri May 25, 2012
The End Is Near, And It's No Walk 'On The Beach'
Originally published on Wed June 6, 2012 5:29 pm
Myla Goldberg's books include The False Friend and Bee Season.
Growing up, I had pretty much the same interests as any other early '80s kid: I loved The Muppets and Schoolhouse Rock, and I was obsessed with mutually assured nuclear destruction.
In those Cold War days, apocalypse was in the air, from Sting crooning that he hoped the Russians loved their children too, to a made-for-TV spectacle called The Day After, which branded the image of a mushroom cloud into my 12-year-old brain and inspired me to craft my own survival plan: When the time came and war seemed imminent, I would hop a plane with my family and head to Australia. There, on that isolated island continent far removed from the U.S. and the USSR, I would live happily ever after.
Then, one day while browsing the shelves of my middle school library, I picked up On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. A title like that could have inferred young love or a summer idyll.
This was not that book.
Carried by taut, no-nonsense prose, I entered a post-WWIII world, in which nuclear blasts have already eradicated life from the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. The planet's only remaining habitable places are parts of Africa, South America, New Zealand and ... you guessed it, Australia.
Being old enough to know what catastrophe was, but still young enough to think that it made exceptions, I had that almost inborn childhood instinct that the larger rules of the world — death, war, sickness — applied to everyone but myself. Now, my survival plan had been vindicated in print, and everything I had ever thought about my own exceptionalism had been proved true!
Then I got to page 10.
As it turns out, most of On the Beach is taken up by the people of Australia waiting to die. The radioactive fall-out clouds are drifting ever southward, and there's nothing anyone can do but track their inexorable progress. Peter Holmes, a newlywed with a young wife and baby daughter, is assigned to one of the world's last remaining submarines, which travels north to investigate the source of a faint radio signal, in the hopes of making contact with whomever is sending it.
There is no happy ending. The submarine mission only confirms the thoroughness of the devastation, leaving everyone in Australia — including Peter and his young family — with no option but to try to find small ways to enjoy their remaining time together before succumbing to agonizing radiation sickness or opting out quickly and painlessly with free suicide pills supplied by the government. The only small solace the book offers is that it is possible to face the end with our humanity intact.
By the end of On the Beach, I had come to the sobering realization that nuclear war makes no exceptions, not even for young girls.
I'm grateful to have read On the Beach when I did. At some point, we're all forced to confront how complicated and heartbreaking life can be, and how often it defies the best-made plans. I can think of no gentler way to have been introduced to that lesson.
PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Now, the latest entry in our new series for young teens. We're calling it "PG-13." That's the age many young readers start to wonder about the adult world. Even if they know they're not quite ready, they're eager for a taste of grown-up ideas.
When she was 12, author Myla Goldberg cracked a book - and got a taste of the horrors of nuclear war. She has this essay on how it changed her young mind.
MYLA GOLDBERG: Growing up, I was like any other early '80s, Cold War kid. I loved the Muppets and "Schoolhouse Rock." I was obsessed with mutually assured nuclear destruction. When Sting came on the radio, singing "I hope the Russians love their children, too," I sang along. All the while, I was picturing a mushroom cloud, and crafting my own survival plan. When the time came, I would hop a plane with my family and move to Australia.
Then I read "On the Beach," by Nevil Shute. Does it sound like a happy book about summer? It's not. On page 1, nuclear blasts from World War III have already erased life from the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. The only remaining habitable places are parts of Africa, South America, New Zealand and - you guessed it - Australia. At first, this sounds like good news. Here was a book that proved my survival plan would work. Then I got to page 10. As it turns out, most of "On the Beach" is taken up by the people of Australia waiting to die.
The radioactive fallout clouds are drifting south, and there's nothing anyone can do about it but watch. Peter Holmes is this young naval officer. He's assigned to the world's last submarine mission. So he leaves his wife and baby daughter to travel north. Is there something hopeful behind a faint radio signal they've been receiving? Not so much. By the time people were taking suicide pills to avoid slow, painful deaths by radiation sickness, I realized that nuclear war makes no exceptions - not even for 12-year-old girls.
So is this book an incredible downer? Um, yeah. But I'm grateful to have read it when I did. When you're a kid, you can't help but think that the larger rules of the world - like death, war and sickness - apply to everyone but yourself. But at some point, we're all forced to face how complicated and heartbreaking life can be. I can't think of a better way to have been allowed to figure that out than in the pages of a book.
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CORNISH: Myla Goldberg's latest novel is called "The False Friend." Her pick for our series "PG-13" was "On the Beach" by Nevil Shute. At our website, you can find more "PG-13" recommendations as well as lists of summer reads from our critics and correspondents. That's all at nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.