Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fall-Out: A Review

Gudrun Pausewang's Fall-Out (translated: Patricia Crampton 1994) is a catastrophe-in-progress novel set in West Germany  of the late 1980s when it was written.  The setting is the small town of Schlitz, West Germany, when a major reactor blow out in the nearby Grafenrhenfeld Nuclear Power Station near Schweinfurt, Germany.  The release of radiation is similar to, but more complete than, that at Chernoyble    It portrays a near worse case scenario of what happens from the viewpoint of a young teenage girl and her brother when they are caught up in the escape from the area, and the aftermath.

One of the English language covers

Gudrun Pausewang, the oldest of six children, was born in 1928 in what is now the Czech Republic.  As the German-folk within Czechloslovakia had been a pretense for the Nazi occupation of the Sudentland in 1938 prior to World War 2, and than the eventual occupation of the remainder of the country, German-folk were not welcome after the war.  With her father having died in the war, the remainder of the family family fled to West Germany.  She became a school teacher, and taught in German foreign schools in South America for some time.  She has written 86 novels, many for children or young adults.  Her most famous novel is the very grim  The Last Children of Schewenborn (1983) a nuclear war apocalypse-in-progress novel written four year prior to this novel, and set very close to the (Fulda) of this novel.

The novel starts with the fourteen year old Jenna in school.  School is let out as they discover the nearby nuclear power plant has had a catastrophic meltdown and blow off.  Their town is normally upwind from the reactor, but of course the weather does not always cooperate, and it does not here.  We eventually learn that there was nine-times as much radiation released as at Chernobyl.   Her mother, father, and the baby of the family are on a day trip into the city - Schweinfurt - very near the reactor.  Jenna must dash home,  hope to meet up with her younger brother Uli (age 7?) coming home from a different school, and make their arrangements for escape/shelter from there.

Grafenrhenfeld Nuclear Power Station (from here)
The story is written at a level that a fifth grader would understand, and has no foul language, or sexual content of any sort.  But it is about as harrowing of a children's book as you could imagine.  There is fallout, and a lot of people die.  Some die very quickly because of secondary causes (car accidents, trampling) and others die slowly (radiation sickness, leukemia).  There is absolutely no one in the novel, including Jenna or her little brother, who are given the hero's pass to survival.  Everyone is vulnerable.  And when people die, you feel as if you know them.  It is very sad.

The novel is not "apocalyptic" in the global sense, and thus I called it a catastrophe novel to indicate its more localized nature.  But it is very clear that Germany is going to be in a world of hurt.  Much of its best farmland is radiated, its crops destroyed, and the businesses are bankrupted as most people have no spare money after paying the newly inflated rates for food.  Jenna as a child is somewhat insulated from some of the day-to-day concerns, but not very much.

Did I enjoy the novel?  It is a bit too real and hits too close to the bone to be called a "fun" book, but I found it a very worthwhile read.  There is madness and mayhem at moments, but has a very realistic episodic feel to it.  Death has a very real feel to it.  When people die, the story neither dwells on them endlessly, the day-to-day flow of events is still there, but they are not forgotten.  The deaths come in bits and pieces,  many of them are anticipated by Jenna, but that does not make them easier to take.

The novel is a good warning not only to the dangers of worst-case scenarios present with the use of nuclear power, but to worst-cases in general. It highlights the danger in planning failures at the government, and individual levels.  To some degree the situation depicted is as analogous to a Hurricane Katrina, predicted and possibly even more inevitable than this scenario, as it is to the recent Japanese less severe problems at Fukushima where much of the fallout at the concentrated stage would have been over the Pacific Ocean.  That the Japanese are shutting down their nuclear reactors indicates that they have not thought through all of the potential costs associated with operating them.  Time going forward will tell us if they are assessing the loss of power generation capabilities realistically as well.

This story, and well done catastrophe stories probably do a far better job of highlighting the need for a quick-escape (the famous "bug out") plan, than the more common apocalyptic stories.  There are relatively few places in the world where some sort of mass catastrophe is not at possible.  Even a house fire is catastrophe to those who live through it.

For our descriptive ratings of realism and readability: 1 to 7 with 7 being highest.

Realism is straightforward.  It is a present day accounting of a very severe, worst case, nuclear meltdown followed by an explosive release within a tightly populated area.  It is the worst of the worst cases, but the panic and problems are realistically portrayed.  It is a seven.

Readability is also fairly easy.  It is a relatively short novel (mmpb is 172 pages), and told in the straightforward fashion that a mature child could comprehend.  My eight year old could follow the story, although he would be greatly upset by some of the events.  The translator uses the occasional odd phrasing, but overall is very well done.  It is even a page turner in a few places:  it is a six.

Schlitz, Germany (from here)

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