It’s the eighties. You’re sixteen. You’re watching The Breakfast Club, maybe rockin’ a pair of Madonna-inspired fingerless gloves, and looking forward to the year 2000 when cars can fly. So far, so fun. Except that at the back of your mind, you’re also pretty scared that if the leaders of nations don’t stop shooting their mouths off at each other, there’s a very real chance that the world is going to end in nuclear war.
Lucky for me, I didn’t read Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust until the nineties, by which time the threat of nuclear holocaust seemed a little less real. I say lucky for me because this book is terrifying, and I can only imagine what it would be like to read the opening scenes thinking ‘this could happen tomorrow'.
In the eighties, the UK government prepared a set of guidelines for what civilians should do in the event of nuclear attack. Seal one room of your house against the radiation; build a shelter inside; and don’t come out until it’s safe. Children of the Dust opens with fifteen-year-old Sarah running like hell to get home before the bomb falls. She and her stepmother barricade the family into one room with supplies of food and water, and prepare to stay inside - in the dark - for the predicted fourteen days it’ll take for the fall-out to clear. Then the world ends.
To describe Children of the Dust as unflinching is an understatement. Louise Lawrence did not write this book to put her YA readers’ minds at rest - within the first twenty pages, Sarah suggests to her stepmother that they get hold of a gun and end it all. What follows is the story of how the survivors fare over the next few generations; those who die from radiation sickness, those who are left to adapt to the effects of the radiation and a new planet, and those who have managed to secure a place in a government shelter. Gradually, a new species rises from the ashes: there's a happy ending to be had, but not in Sarah's lifetime.
Even though we live our lives today feeling pretty much free of the threat of nuclear holocaust, this book is still very relevant. We could still destroy the planet, and each other. A natural disaster could destroy it for us. There’s still a lot to be scared by here.
Verdict: Epic, fascinating, and unforgettable.