I read this book in early 1988. I was almost 13. I saw a classmate reading this book. (Megan, I think.) I saw the mushroom cloud on the cover. This was also around the time I had become familiar with Weird Al’s song “Christmas at Ground Zero”, and these lyrics: “We can dodge debris while we trim the tree / Underneath the mushroom cloud.” So naturally, I wanted to read it. At the time, if I remember correctly, we were nearing the end of the Cold War, but the possibility of mushroom clouds still seemed very real.
I found the book in the school library in my junior high. The Media Librarian was Mrs. Page, who was previously my fifth grade teacher. I loved her, and in jr. high, she would often save me books that she thought I’d like. However, this one I found on my own. Also, it again points out the power of peer influence, even when it comes to reading selections. Note: It was most likely this book that really gave me a taste for “disaster” fiction. I have to admit that it was already there (e.g. The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder), but the disaster in Children of the Dust is man-made. This really woke me up to the idea that people could really be crazy enough to be this destructive.
Seven things about Children of the Dust:
1) The story is told in three parts – “Sarah”, “Ophelia”, and “Simon”. They are each essentially a different generation.
2) It takes place in England, in Gloucestershire. The book opens with a line about how perfect the day was: “It was such a perfect day, a promise of summer with cloudless blue skies.”
3) Sarah does not get along well with her step-mother Veronica. They get along better as the end nears for them. They work together to save Catherine, Sarah’s little sister.
4) Their dad, unbeknownst to them, survives when he is invited to an underground bunker. He pairs with another woman to conceive another child (Ophelia) to help carry on the human race. They mistakenly think that no one will survive outside.
5) Years later, when Ophelia is a teen, she, a friend, and her dad to go out to warn the people in the outside world that the men in the bunker are going to come to steal their cattle. It is then that they discover Catherine. Catherine is covered in radiation sores, but has managed to have two children who survive – they are mutants: the Children of the Dust. They have adapted to the new radiated environment. Ophelia looks so much like Sarah that Catherine thinks that Sarah survived.
6) Thirty some years later – Ophelia’s son Simon has been out with an expedition and is injured. He is taken to the healer in the local mutant settlement where he meets who turned out to be his cousin Laura (granddaughter of Catherine – also known by now as Blind Kate). Laura is a mutant, and at first he finds her repulsive, and then later beautiful as he get to know her and her people.
7) The mutants have mentals powers such as telekenesis that humans always has access to, but never used, and then forgot over time. The mutants have reclaimed these powers. Simon begins to see how the mutants and their powers, and the science that the people in the bunkers have can work together to create a wonderful new world.
Favorite lines from the book:
“They ate by candlelight – fish sticks, crinkle-cut french fries, and green beans, with thawing ice cream for dessert. . . food that Veronica had taken from the freezer and had to be used up quickly” (12).
“Sarah coughed and smiled. Bright blood flecked the back of her hand and she did not worry. Johnson was part of the plan, a man with a vision that she herself would never share. Her part was over, her purpose played out. She had lived for Catherine and now she gave Catherine to him. Finally satisfied, Sarah turned away, leaving man and child together in the rainy darkness” (61).
“From the inner room came a thin baby wail and an echo of girlish laughter, laughter that went on and one, a maniacal glee. Dwight was talking rubbish! Of course the human race was going to survive! Catherine had just given birth to a live healthy child and Ophelia was going to see. . . Gently she opened the shawl for Ophelia to see. The baby was naked, a pale little thing, completely covered in white silky hair, soft and thick as fur. Tiny fingers gripped when Ophelia touched her, and her eyes opened wide. They too were white” (11 7-18).
” ‘Government?’ said Johnson. ‘What government is this? I wasn’t aware we had a government, and I certainly didn’t vote for them. None of us did. You can’t just walk in here, Allison, and expect me to believe you represent some government I’ve never heard of.’
‘I do have credentials.’
‘Credentials don’t count,’ said Johnson” (122).
” ‘Psychic,’ said the girl, as if she had read his mind. ‘I’m a water diviner, among other things, and my name is Laura. You had no need to shoot that dog, you know. I could have controlled it. My mind is stronger than an animal’s mind. Stronger than yours, too.’
Simon sat on the crumbling edge of the windowsill.
There was a throbbing pain in his leg.
He did not believe what she told him.
Laura laughed teasingly.
‘Once people believed that nuclear holocaust would never happen,’ she said” (136-7).
If you liked this book, there is a movie from the early ’80s that you should see titled The Day After. I watched this two or three years ago after a colleague suggested it. It takes place in the US, and does not go into future generations of those who survive, but it tells a story that is very scary, and would be at least as scary as this book. I do have to admit, though, that Children of the Dust really ends very positively for the characters involved who go on to create new societies after the destruction.