In The Girl Who Owned a City (first published 1975, reissued 1995), O.T. Nelson creates an entirely unbelievable post-apocalyptic scenario for middle-grade readers. In the story, the world population of adults has died of a rapidly spreading plague within the last month. All that remains in ten-year-old Lisa’s immediate world are other children, all under the age of twelve. Lisa is now responsible for her younger brother’s food and safety. Using her intelligence and her problem-solving abilities, Lisa discovers previously untouched sources of food, gathers her street into a commune, and moves them all into the local high school, of which Lisa is made supreme ruler.
Such a (ridiculous) story may have worked fantastically, but O.T. Nelson’s prose is painful, the characters one-dimensional and selfish, and the ordinary things about the story are entirely unbelievable.
I love it.
As with yesterday’s post about D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, I could not read this or write about it without an extreme bias. I read this book first as an eight-year-old. My ten-year-old brother and I would pretend all the adults were dead and we were moving into the local high school. We’d figure out where we’d find food (looking at maps and in phone books) and we’d decide on which of our friends we’d invite to our “city.” We dreamed about driving the car without parental supervision. It was a blast.
I should also add that the novel takes place in what was then my near-neighbor town of Lombard, Illinois. The school sequestered in the novel is Glenbard high school, which my mother attended when she was a teenager. When I drove past the high school as a child (very infrequently, but maybe twice a year), I’d recall The Girl Who Owned a City with fondness.
Reading it as an adult brought back the memories, but it also was pretty disappointing. The novel is a pretty badly written book with lots of loop holes. For a really great break down of why it’s awful, see the post by Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog. She apparently didn’t have great childhood memories of it, so had only negative things to say! Imagine that!
To her list of plot gaps, I’ll also add that I was a bit skeptical of Lisa being first for everything. I don’t think twelve-year-old kids would hesitate to teach themselves to drive. I don’t think it would take them a whole week of no adults for them to go behind the wheel (a rather terrifying thought).
Wikipedia indicates that the author wrote the book to be an easily accessible introduction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and that may be why Lisa came across as selfish. I didn’t like how she determined she was “owner” of the high school city, and I don’t think the other youngsters would have reacted as nicely as they did. There were few deaths in this novel. It was the opposite of Lord of the Flies: all the children learned to get alone rather than succumb to the chaos surrounding them.
In the end, the people rally for her leadership, yet for the most part she was telling people what to do in a dictatorial setting. I’ll note that as an eight-year-old reader, I didn’t know or care about Ayn Rand, and Lisa’s selfishness did not make me dislike her. But I obviously was rather blind to this book in general: I just liked it.
At any rate, if you are a child interested in a post-apocalyptic middle grade story, or a survival story, it is a fun read. Bonus points if you are an imaginative kid who will act out the scenarios yourself! For those readers who don’t have fond memories reading it as a youngster and who do have plenty of other reading choices, though, it may be too flawed to enjoy.