One writer’s revisiting of a cherished novel from their youth — concerning a pandemic that distressingly foretells of present day predicaments — illuminates within him a facet of himself he thought was lost long ago…
by: Riley Winchester
My favorite book when I was around eleven was about a pandemic. The book is titled Pandemia: a Novel of the Bird Flu and the End of the World by Jonathan Rand and Christopher Knight. Pandemia follows the story of four sixteen-and seventeen-year-old kids surviving their way through the end of the world, brought about by the H5N1 virus, a strain of the bird flu. As a preteen, I thought it was the Great American Novel.
Author’s Note: Jonathan Rand and Christopher Knight are, in fact, the same person, and those names are different nom de plumes for one man named Christopher Wright. Please don’t ask. I don’t have an answer.
After living during a pandemic for over a year, I decided to revisit the novel, mostly for nostalgia’s sake but also for comparison. I wanted to see how different my real life pandemic experience was from the pandemic I was promised in my youth.
My name is Sierra McConnel, and I live on Castlebury Drive in Saline, Michigan.
Well… that’s where I used to live, anyway.
On my sixteenth birthday, I invited thirteen friends over for a party. Seven showed up… the other six had the flu.
Two days later, the sick ones died.
A week after that, nearly everyone in the world was dead.
This is how Rand’s/Knight’s/Wright’s book begins. The next chapter explains that the flu was caused by the H5N1 strain and it originated in Asia. There’s a lot about Sierra McConnel’s early pandemic days that differs from my experience. The first is that I was six years older and had about twelve fewer friends. In fact, the first piece of marginalia I left in the book was in reference to that third sentence: a pithy, “That’s a lot, damn.” The other main differences are the early days of my pandemic, COVID-19, progressed slower — it was weeks of rumors before things got real —and my pandemic is a virus, not a flu.
Author’s Note: Like Sierra, I too live in Michigan. And no doubt that was part of the book’s appeal to me as a preteen. Shared experience and representation, even when it’s something as trivial as location, mean a lot to readers. That’s how I found Pandemia in the first place. Every kid growing up in Michigan in the early aughts knew of Jonathan Rand, author of the acclaimed series (at least by young Michiganders) Michigan Chillers. Go into any elementary school library in Michigan in the early aughts and you’re sure to see a kid reading Mayhem on Mackinac Island or Terror Stalks Traverse City or Poltergeists of Petoskey or Aliens Attack Alpena or any of the twenty total entries in the series. So Pandemia was inescapable to me. I was always fated to read it.
At the end of chapter two there’s an italicized paragraph that caught my attention for its similarity. It reads, “It won’t happen to me. Not us, here, in Michigan, in the United States. They’ll stop it, they’ll find some sort of vaccine or something.” This sentiment seemed to be ubiquitous in the nascent days of COVID — December 2019 and January 2020. Word of the coronavirus was circulating, but a combination of blind optimism and contrived stoicism led many to believe it would ultimately be contained in China and other regions of eastern Asia. Everybody was sure that there was nothing to worry about.
It was March 7, 2020, and I was with some friends (okay, you caught me; I exaggerated a little earlier) and the conversation shifted to coronavirus. By then, it was impossible to ignore. Still, despite its growing presence, none of us seemed concerned. Toward the end of the conversation, I chimed in and said it was possible that the virus could shut down our school. I hedged my statement by saying I didn’t think it would happen, but I think it could happen. Everybody shrugged me off and said I was overreacting.
Three days later I listened to five different professors talk about what would happen in the event of a shutdown. Most students didn’t seem to take it seriously. But that night I received an email that the university had temporarily shut down and would be transitioning online to finish the semester. In Sierra’s last day at school in Pandemia, students are heard fighting and screaming in agony in the halls as rumors spread about which teachers and students have already died of H5N1. Sierra’s teacher tells the students to leave, and Sierra doesn’t take her books with her because she says she knew she wasn’t ever going to return. In comparison, I’ll take my email over Sierra’s experience.
The end of chapter six — page twenty-two — is when Sierra’s pandemic reaches the point where there would be no return to normalcy. Sierra’s older brother, Eddie, picks her up in the parking lot and hightails it home. Sierra is frazzled and asks Eddie why all of the drivers are going crazy on the road.
“‘Haven’t you heard the news?’ Eddie says. ‘Haven’t you seen what’s going on? It’s not just here, Sierra. It’s everywhere. Everybody is dying. This isn’t just the flu. This is the end of the world.’”
My pandemic realization wasn’t as dramatic as Sierra’s, but at the time I was equally confused and scared. My roommate, Nik, and I decided to make one last supply run before hunkering down. Nik had a Target gift card and didn’t know the next time he would be able to use it, so we went to Target for our supplies. We pulled into the commercial district that our local Target is in, and we saw a phalanx of cars blocking the parking lot, filling every spot.
“Shit,” Nik said.
We pulled into the parking lot and did a u-turn. We sat at the intersection and pondered our options.
“Well,” Nik said, “best not to panic shop on an empty stomach.”
“Chipotle?” I said.
We ate burrito bowls and watched across the street as shoppers filed in and out of the Target. Every cart leaving the store seemed to have the same item, blocky and stacked high over the cart’s edges. We thought nothing of it, and when we finished our meal we made the trek back to Target.
First we picked out our food and beverages — lots of ramen noodles, peanut butter, bread, canned food, tuna, frozen chicken, Miller Lite, bottled water, water flavoring packets, Miller Lite, Gatorade. We had household items like toilet paper and disinfectant wipes on our list, but before we made it to that aisle we were waylaid by the $5 movie bin. We figured we had a lot of movie time in our near future. After rifling through the bin and picking out $25-worth of made-for-TV movies, we finally made it to the toilet paper aisle. It was barren, save for a lowly four-pack of single-ply knocked on its side on the bottom shelf.
Nik picked up the toilet paper and looked at me. His blue eyes had turned dewy; he took a shallow breath.
“I can’t do single-ply, dude,” I said.
“Don’t you see.” Nik held the toilet paper out to me. “It’s all we got. Everybody took it all.”
Author’s Note: I wish that was a dramatic retelling of our fear of single-ply toilet paper, but that was exactly how it happened.
Author’s Note: There isn’t much comparison between mine and Sierra’s pandemics after this point. I spent my days day-drinking on the futon and watching Below Deck reruns. Sierra spent her days fighting for her life against looters, rabid dogs, and an apocalyptic flu. Her boyfriend, Kevin, and best friend, Tracie, join her and Eddie, rounding out the team of four teenage pandemic survivors. By page eighty, the kids have already killed someone in self-defense. I stopped comparing pandemics at this point.
One of the first things that struck me in my rereading of Pandemia was the lack of adult presence. The McConnel parents only make appearances via phone call — they’re never physically present in the book. By page thirty-eight, they’re dead and out of the book. And outside of the early-and ill-fated McConnel parents, the few other adults in Pandemia only serve as pessimistic or violent harbingers of misfortune.
The most recurring adult character in the novel is a nameless radio disc jockey who the kids listen to early in the book, before radio signals go dark. In his last appearance, the disc jockey admits over the air that he’s caught the flu, and he knows his time is coming. He says in his final sign off, “Now, I’m not going to be like some radio stations and tell you the best way to kill yourself. I’m sure you’ve heard them, and I admit folks…this isn’t looking good for anybody. But if you start feeling ill…the shakes, body aches, fever…well, that’s the beginning of the end.” He then pops a bottle of pills and washes it down with a swig of iced tea.
Author’s Note: The next chapter begins with Tracie asking where the disc jockey went after a couple minutes of dead air. To which Eddie replies, “No idea. Maybe he went to the bathroom.” I thought the adult-youth, pessimism-optimism juxtaposition here was a little on the nose, but I digress.
After the disc jockey, the kids encounter various adult figures who never stick around long enough to add anything to the story. But one thing that connects all of them is that they’re evil; their only intentions are to hurt the kids. They encounter thieves, petty gangs, greasy and unkempt bikers, manipulative men who take advantage of the kids’ youth and innocence. The kids seem to bounce around from one micro-conflict to another like pinballs. And each of these conflicts are caused by adults—they only serve as metaphorical speed bumps on the kids’ road to survival.
Author’s Note: There is, however, one exception to this adult theme. The kids encounter a kind elderly couple who supply them with food and directions. The couple are the only elderly characters in the book; all evil adults are middle age. It seems, in the world of Pandemia, middle age corrupts you but old age scrubs that corruption away.
These dangerous run-ins with evil adults are invariably followed by the kids assuring each other that they’re all they have. One chapter ends, “‘How many people have you seen today that wanted to help us?’ Eddie replied flatly. ‘We’re on our own, Trace. At this point it’s us against the world.’”
I made note of this excerpt when I read it. I thought back to when I was around eleven and first read the book, how that line likely stood out to me. The theme of freedom from the adult world has always been ubiquitous in young adult literature, and there’s a good reason for it: It’s pretty damn appealing to a young reader. When I first read Pandemia, I had a bedtime, my parents still scolded me for not brushing my teeth or doing my homework, I couldn’t go anywhere unsupervised; I was devoid of liberty. But the kids in Pandemia were free and could do as they pleased. I wanted that freedom — albeit in a different setting than the apocalypse —a nd I was able to vicariously live it through the book.
My reading experience fell apart in the book’s third act. My marginalia devolved into that of a crotchety old man yelling at clouds. For instance, on page two hundred thirty-seven, Sierra asks Tracie if she’s a virgin. To that, I wrote in the margins, “Best friends would know that.” On page two hundred forty-four, a paragraph reads:
And the chili/rabbit concoction was tremendous! Perhaps it was partly because it had been so long since I’d had a hot meal, but at the time, it didn’t matter. The chili was spicy, chunky, hot, and good. The rabbit meat was a bit chewy, but it really was quite tasty. Even Tracie, who was a bit hesitant at first, began gulping down her meal.
“This may be the worst paragraph in the history of the written word,” I wrote below it. On the next page, Sierra says they washed the meal down with lake water. I wrote, “Smart kids,” in the margins.
By page two hundred fifty-two, I started picking apart the book’s grammar. I counted four incorrect uses of lie/lay and the use of ‘hoards’ when it should have been ‘hordes.’ That was only in a span of twenty-two pages. On one page, I condescendingly wrote, “Correct!” in the margins next to the correct usage of ‘laying.’
I felt myself growing sick of the kids. Their actions and words annoyed me. I started mocking them in my head as I read. Somewhere along the way I lost interest in them and became entirely unsympathetic. I couldn’t take it any longer and I was so sick of the damn book that I skipped the last thirty pages. I was frustrated, mostly at myself for having such fond memories of the book as a kid when now as an adult I couldn’t even stand to finish it.
Needing catharsis, I wrote on the blank half of a page, “What makes YA and coming of age stories popular is that they’re read by those who have yet to come of age. Anybody who’s come of age knows that coming of age is nothing like YA makes it out to be.”
Author’s Note: I suppose the same could be said about pandemic stories, too, for those who have experienced a pandemic. So, really, I was doubly annoyed.
I was too fired up in my annoyance to realize the obvious irony I had experienced in my rereading of Pandemia. I had become the nameless radio disc jockey, the pessimistic adults, the joyless and miserable antagonists of the story. I don’t know when it happened; it seemed to have happened so quickly that I never had a chance to notice. Only a little over a decade earlier I had read Pandemia and loved it. Had anybody asked me what my favorite book was at that time, I would have proudly said, without hesitation, Pandemia. Yet now I couldn’t even finish it, couldn’t even read it without becoming a smug critic.
I waited a couple of days and decided once again to revisit the book. I flipped to the back, to the last page I remembered reading. Thirty more pages, I told myself, just finish it. Storywise, it ends exactly how I remembered. Sierra, Tracie, Eddie, and Kevin safely make it to a secluded cabin in northern Michigan and start their lives anew. Two years pass. They live off the land and start families of their own. Sierra marries Kevin, and Tracie marries Eddie. Everybody is happy.
The book ends with Sierra ruminating on their new lives.
And we’ve learned that a big, fat strawberry can be heaven on earth. A largemouth bass filet frying in a pan is a feast fit for a king. Sunshine, blue skies. A warm fire. The song of a bird, and crickets at night.
The little things.
Different pandemic experiences be damned. To hell with incorrect grammar and poorly written paragraphs and the unsustainability of YA’s appeal as one grows older. After reading that, I was happy I went back and finished the book. As a preteen, I know I didn’t appreciate those closing lines. Pandemia’s main draws for me were the story, the conflict, and the familiar setting. Now, I can appreciate it deeper. The little things. Like rereading an old favorite book, even if it’s frustrating as hell at times, and finding something new in it. It reminds you that that part of you, that younger self, is still there.
The little things.
Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s “Lifespan” Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.