Plague Journal by Michael O’Brien is the second book in the Children of the Last Days series, but I’m reading out of order so I started with this one and will read the first novel, Strangers and Sojourners next.
I’ve heard O’Brien’s work described as a sort of Left Behind for Catholics. I wouldn’t know exactly because I’ve never read LB. But O’Brien is concerned with a sort of fictionalized end times. More than that really, he’s concerned with Apocalypse, revelation of God’s plan in human history. And his perspective is very Catholic.
Plague Journal is the story of Nathaniel Delaney, a journalist, editor and owner of a paper called The Echo. He’s a self-appointed prophet crying out in the wilderness, warning of the collapse of civilization, the downfall of democracy and the tyranny of the social service state. He’s also a divorced father of three whose wife has disappeared with their youngest son. And a lapsed Catholic. As the novel opens, Delaney is falling apart, a crisis of faith after the departure of his wife and the destruction of his newspaper. Soon he is on the run from a government turned tyrannical.
As I was reading I kept thinking of Walker Percy’s The Second Coming or maybe Love in the Ruins (I always mix those two books up because I read them at about the same time) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The narrator has a feel of a Percy character, in fact all the characters do. And the sensibility is so often Percy, but Percy set in the frozen north of Canada.
I suppose I was thinking of Atwood because of the narrative structure, a journal left behind by a person who has been disappeared by the government and pieced together by a later redactor. That and the bleak Canadian setting. I know The Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to be set mainly in the Cambridge, Ma area and only briefly flirts with the Canadian border, but I only learned that much later. It still feels Canadian to me because that’s how I read it the first time.
There are also a very strong self-conscious echoes of Tolkien in the narrator’s journey as he flees his home with his children, secret police in hot pursuit, just as Frodo and his companions flee Bag End with the forces of Mordor nipping at their heels.
I was a little disconcerted at times to find not just echoes but excepts of much of O’Brien’s non-fiction writing embedded in the book. Pieces of Landscape with Dragons also bits from many of his essays that i’d read on his website, especially from “Father at Night”, one of my favorite of his pieces. But the patchwork is self-conscious and the pieces form a part of clippings patched into the stream of consciousness of the journal form. It works because of who the narrator is, a writer constantly composing in his head.
The dust jacket quote from Peter Kreeft sums up my reading experience quite nicely:
Why couldn’t I put this book down? Its plot is simple, its narrator hectors, and I don’t want to believe its prophetic warning. But its characters are unforgettable; its author makes simple goodness winsome, even heroic; and its social indictment is as important as that of Brave New World.
I’d add that I found its nightmare Canadian government all too plausible. It isn’t a stretch at all, in fact its mostly here already, according to what I read in the news. If I were to teach my dream class on dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, this would definitely have to go on the list.
My comments on other books in the series: