Summary + Review
In the opening pages of Ashfall, readers are introduced to Cedar Falls (Woo! I went to college there!) teen Alex Halprin who is relieved when he gets out of his family’s weekend trip to Warren, Illinois. Mere pages later, Alex’s world is turned upside down when his house partially collapses! After escaping to his neighbors’ house, more strange occurrences threaten his life: relentless thunder nearly bursts his eardrums, power and cell signals go out, and then ash begins to fall from the sky like rain. After the immediate threats subside, Alex finds out that the cause of the chaos was the eruption of the Yellowstone volcano. He grabs some provisions from his house and sets off to try to reconnect with his family.
The plot follows Alex through a few minor stops and conflicts, but most of the story takes place after Alex is nearly killed by a prison escapee and he stumbles into the home of Mrs. Edmunds and her daughter, Darla. Mrs. Edmunds is the warm-hearted, nurturing mother figure Alex needs to recover and prepare for the rest of his journey to Illinois. Darla, however, is stubborn, impatient, smart, and critical of Alex; of course, he likes her immediately. 🙂
The three work to maximize their food resources and brace themselves for what looks to be a cold, ash-filled, treacherous winter-come-early. However, despite their preparations, nothing can ready them for all the dangers they will face in the post-eruption U.S.
I had predicted that Alex and Darla would somehow end up on their own; I do think Mullin did a nice job of not letting the plot become predictable, though. I haven’t read the sequel, and I’m intrigued to see how the FEMA/government issues are dealt with in Ashen Winter. I’m also excited to see if/when Alex and Darla journey back to Cedar Falls. I do hope Mullin lets other characters in on whatever treks they make because I would hate to see the series become all about the romance. >:/
Mullin’s writing style, as well as the survivalist focus of Ashfall, remind me a lot of the Unwind ‘dystolgy’ by Neal Shusterman, the Gone series by Michael Grant, and The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken. These books all have that fantastic action- and setting-related description but lack much character-centered or mood-creating detail. For many readers, this is a good thing; others (I’m one of them) like a little more character development with our world building! 🙂 Anyway, those books would make great read-alikes.
Because of this writing style, it took me a few chapters to warm up to the story. I also think the end is dragged out a little unnecessarily, as well. I think a few of the secondary characters blended together, without much to distinguish one from the next. Finally, as far as issues with the book go, I thought that Alex and Darla were just a little too brilliant in the self-preservation department. In a novel that is totally focused on survival, I am willing to let this go a bit. However, I think it did end up taking away some of the sense of the two ever really being in true peril: after all, they would figure something out. Other than these minor problems, I really loved this book. Where apocalyptic and dystopian fiction novels are a dime a dozen right now, Mullin has brought a new, unique idea to the table. It also must be said that, as far as the science part of the science fiction, Mullin seems to definitely know his stuff. The parts of the book that focused on the natural disaster elements were some of my favorite to read.
Sentence structure is very simple throughout Ashfall. Mullin uses some bigger vocabulary but not often enough, in my opinion, to turn away reluctant readers. For me, this had a bit of a slow start…but that could just be me. For a longer book (456 pages!), I think Mullin does a nice job of maintaining a fairly brisk pace. And while the science content is well-explained, I wouldn’t say it was shoved down my throat. (Some of my student readers complain about the over-emphasis of complex scientific concepts in some science fiction.)
To my surprise, Ashfall contains references to both consensual sex and a sexual assault. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me: if the world is ending, people are gonna try to procreate. The sexual assault, without getting into spoilers, is arguably necessary to the plot. I wish Mullin hadn’t spent so much time and focus on the other. Not because I think it limits the reading audience (I think it’s handled maturely), but because it detracts from the main conflicts. But whatevs. Ashfall also has some pretty gruesome violence and mild profanity.
-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs
-Science inquiry. This book has tons of potential for students to research scientific plausibility: Yellowstone Volcano eruption likelihood; silicosis; human survival necessities; effects of volcanic eruptions on weather, climate, nature, etc.
-Discussion. Lots of great potential topics for discussion around this book, even outside of the great science connections. Ask students, what they would do to survive. Would their decisions align with Alex’s and Darla’s? Do they think Mullin’s ideas about how communities and government agencies deal with the disaster reflect what would happen in real life?
-Predicting. Prediction is a pretty basic reading skill, but the beloved (hee hee) Common Core contains ELA standards that deal with proving inferences with text evidence. See a couple different grade levels here, here, and even here. Ashfall would really lend itself to predicting and backing up predictions with evidence from the story (or evidence from research, if the predictions deal with the scientific components of the story).
Recommended passage(s) for book talks:
“Then the explosions started. The sound hit me physically, like an unexpected gust of wind trying to throw me off my feet. Two windows in the house next door bowed inward under the pressure and shattered. Darren stumbled from the force, and I caught him with my left hand. I used to watch lightning storms with my sister. We’d see the lightning and start counting: one Mississippi, two Mississippi…If we got to five, the lightning was a mile away. Ten, two miles. This noise was like when we’d see the lightning, count one–and wham, the thunder would roll over us–the kind of thunder that would make my sister run inside screaming. But unlike thunder, this didn’t stop. It went on and on, machine-gun style, as if Zeus had loaded his bolts into an M60 with an inexhaustible ammo crate. But there was no lightning, only thunder” (Tanglewood Publishing 2011 hardcover, pages 18-20) It was getting cold, which worried me. I thought for a moment and figured out it was the last day of August The volcano must be messing with the weather somehow. How cold would it get? I had no way to answer that question, so I ignored it for the moment. I put on one of Dad’s long-sleeved shirts over a T-shirt. I slept in my parents’ bed that night, fully clothed. Under the oppressive smell of sulfur, I caught a hint of my mom–a faint whiff of the Light Blue perfume we bought her every year for Mother’s Day. Lately I’d been so consumed with fighting with Mom that it never occurred to me what my life would be like without her. Without Dad’s benevolent disinterest. Without the brat, my sister. Who would I be, if they were all gone? I clenched my eyes shut and refused to cry. Would I see them again? Yes, I decided. If they were alive, I would find my family. There was no way they could come home to get me. Nothing short of a bulldozer would be able to move in all that ash. And if the gang that had invaded Joe and Darren’s house was any indication, Cedar Falls would only get more dangerous. Tomorrow, I’d set out for Warren to find my family. The journey might be impossible, but I had to try. I had to find my mother. With that resolution, I drifted off to sleep (pp. 55-56)
Mike Mullin on Ashfall: The author talks about his inspiration behind Ashfall, the book A Short History of Nearly Everything, and he reads a passage from the book. (The read-aloud is great!)
Hooray! Turns out, an eruption of the supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park is highly unlikely.
Ashfall should be diagnosed for readers feeling sick and tired of the same old recycled YA apocalyptic plots. It will be an especially potent read for those preferring world-building detail rather than character-centered narration. Overall, this is a well-researched, exciting science fiction novel.