The Road to Nowhere Series
by Meg Elison
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife / 2. The Book of Etta / 3. The Book of Flora
Not all well written books are pleasant experiences, but they can still be compelling. Sometimes the depiction of tragedy is necessary, and can be as meaningful as a more optimistic narrative. It could be said there's nothing new here, there have been many stories of this nature already. That's true to an extent, but genre fiction thrives on tropes and common themes. It's all about different perspectives, different emotional resonances, different ways various authors develop the theme. The first book in Meg Elison's Road to Nowhere series won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2015. That is given to the best novel published in the US as an original paperback. The second book was a finalist for the same award this year. I'll get to what the series title means later, but will say now that the title of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is slightly inaccurate. Portions of the story are from the midwife's journal, but the majority is a third-person account, some of which gives details that the midwife could not have known about at the time, possibly not even later. She also occasionally transcribes from other people's journals into her own, in an effort to preserve as complete a record of events as possible. The part of the title that is accurate is we never learn her real name. She does introduce herself to others at times, but always with a false name. It is as if she thinks revealing her true name might make her even more vulnerable than she already is.
It's a post-apocalyptic story, detailing events during and after a devastating plague ravages the Earth. It is possible that as much as 98% of the population died, with women and children affected to an even greater degree than men. It started with what was assumed to be a virulent flu strain, which hit pregnant women the hardest. All pregnant women died either before or immediately after giving birth, and so did the babies. It is decades before another viable birth. The midwife worked at the medical center of the University of California, San Francisco. She contracted the disease too, but recovered. She had no idea how long she was delirious or unconscious, and when she recovered no one else was around, alive at least. She recalled that the CDC had evacuated some doctors and nurses who had not fallen ill, including her boyfriend Jack, a clinical lab technician, but she doesn't know where they were taken. She encountered two men whom she initially thought would not be a threat, since they are gay. They later abandon her, because with so few women survivors they feared she would make them the target of other gangs of men. She decides she needs to leave San Francisco, and also that she should disguise herself as a man.
With so few survivors, power, water, and other city services are down. No cell phones, no internet, no television news, no way to get information about what is going on across the country and around the globe. Announcements heard on a battery operated radio tell of better conditions in Central America, but she knows San Francisco could not receive a signal from that distance, so someone must be trying to lure people south. She decides to go north instead. I'll skip over details of various encounters, most of which are unpleasant. Trigger warnings for sensitive readers, including for rape, other forms of assault, and generally violent scenes. Her father had trained her with guns, she's intelligent and resourceful, and for the most part she is able to avoid others. When that is unavoidable, she attempts to bargain her way out of situations with medical supplies and treatment. Her travels take her from California, to Oregon, then east into Idaho. Severe winter weather drives her back south into Utah. The snow continues, slowing her journey. She rests and sets up a base camp in an abandoned house in Eden, then walks to Huntsville, where she hopes to find equipment and supplies to help her through the winter. There she encounters what seems to be a thriving LDS community. They invite him (remember she's in disguise) to join their group, but she would rather face things on her own, plus since she is not religious, she gets an uneasy feeling from the fundamentalist group. Dramatic, and tragic, events continue throughout the winter, but when the weather clears she leaves. Her journey ends at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, which had been renamed Fort Nowhere. It is only coincidence that is where Jack and others had been taken, to work with the CDC on a vaccine or cure.
As I said at the start, this isn't a pleasant, light-hearted story, but I still recommend it. I read it quickly because I had to continue through all the tragedy to learn of the midwife's fate. It reminded me of another book I've intended to re-read for a long time. It's probably been at least thirty years since I read George R. Stewart's classic Earth Abides, so memory of specific details is not that strong, but overall I remember liking it a lot. On re-reading I might change my mind, but right now I'm thinking this is just as good. A different perspective, a woman's instead of a man's, and with the technological advancements since 1949, even more information and innovations lost in the decline of civilization. The end of the midwife's story is the beginning of the recovery, the first viable birth, plus 'Jane' training others to carry on her work. The prologue, and a couple of other sections throughout, are set in a future community that includes a few children who were born healthy and survived. Each year, a different set of children are given the task of making copies of the midwife's journal, along with a few others that have been handed down over the years. It is not clear how far into the future those scenes are set, but it can be assumed it is still in or around Fort Nowhere. Get this, read it, share it. Don't let the midwife's tale be forgotten. I'll follow up with thoughts on the second book soon.
As you can see from the cover image, some of the events in The Book of Etta take place in St. Louis, or as Etta calls it, Estiel (from the abbrieviation STL). When we first meet Etta she is disguised as a man, as the midwife was during much of her journey across the apocalyptic wasteland. In that guise she uses the name Eddy, working as a 'raider,' scavenging for useful materials in abandoned houses, schools, hospitals, etc, and also trading for goods other people are producing. He has also rescued several women and children over his seven years as a raider. While Eddy is on the road, masculine pronouns are used, switching back to female pronouns on his/her return to Nowhere, when she resumes the persona of Etta. There are only a few brief excerpts from his/her journal, the majority of the book is again a third person account. Those excerpts start with "Year 104 in the Nowhere Codex." I'm not sure what the base year is, either dating from the Dying, or when the Midwife first came to Fort Nowhere, perhaps from the first new birth. The midwife's journal is still copied and read by everyone in the community, and it is confirmed that the flash-forward scenes in the first book were set around this time, and the woman who was directing the children to copy the journal was Etta's mother, Ina.
Etta has a very strained relationship with her mother, that being just one reason she/he prefers to be on the road. Life at Fort Nowhere is not as bad as in some other communities, with work chores evenly divided. It's basically a matriarchial society, with Mothers of living children, and the Midwives, being the most highly regarded. Etta doesn't want to be a Mother or a Midwife, and while she has a secretive relationship with another woman, it frustrates her that they can't be open and honest about it. A few of the men also have to hide their attraction to other men. Procreation is considered the number one priority, anything defying that goal is suspect. It is possible that Etta/Eddy suffers from multiple personality disorder, at times thinking of himself as a man, as Eddy, other times as a woman, including internal dialogue between the two. Flora seems to think Eddy is truly a transgender man, and she might be right. It surprised me that Flora was such a big part of this book, because she will be the focus of the next one in the series. The Book of Flora will be out next April. That might feature her earlier life in addition to things that happened to her after she left Nowhere, or it may continue from the end of this book, after Eddy rescued her. She's a very interesting character, but I can't get into that now to avoid spoilers.
St. Louis and Fort Nowhere are not the only settings. Eddy's normal route was from the fort to Estiel, but this time he ventures to places he hadn't been before, including Jefferson City, the former Missouri capital, where he meets Flora. Her community is quite a bit different than at Nowhere, with many more women than expected. He doesn't know why until later. He takes Flora to the Meramec Caverns, then later after he leaves her at Nowhere, he travels on his own to Manhattan, Kansas, as well as an underground complex somewhere south of there. He is rescued and taken there after nearly drowning in the Misery (Missouri) River. Every where he goes, he finds communities coping with the crisis in wildly different ways. I've added a trigger warning in the comments on the first book, and I need to do that here too. There are some very violent scenes, with rape and other abuse, as well as several descriptions of that type of activity after the fact. I'm not sure if one disturbing scene Etta describes actually happened, or if it was just the memory of an hallucination brought on by the consumption of mushrooms. Perhaps it did happen, the hallucination reinforcing a horror from a previous event, one she will never forget. While I wouldn't rate this as highly as the first book, with Etta/Eddy an intriguing character, but not as sympathetic as the Midwife. Also, one of the community scenarios was not as well developed as others, with a character straining credibility by leaning too far toward fantasy. It's still very good though, and I look forward to continuing the journey.
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