Alden Bell’sYA post-apocalyptic fantasy novel The Reapers Are the Angels shares DNA with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both books deal with the same theme: how to maintain humanity in the face of complete devastation. The apocalypse in Bell’s book is a mysterious zombie plague, which probably means most English professors won’t be adding it to their reading lists. That’s a shame, because The Reapers are the Angels has a lot to say about the human condition, connections, compassion, and hope.
Temple, Alden Bell’s fifteen-year-old female protagonist, was born well after the sudden irruption of zombies twenty-five years ago. She has been on her own for quite a while. When the book opens, she is living in a lighthouse on an island off the coast of Florida. A zombie washes up on shore, so Temple decides it’s time to move on.
Back on the mainland, Temple easily evades the “slugs” or “meatskins” who shamble around the shore, finds a car with fuel in the tank, and heads north. This gives Bell the opportunity to show us a country in ruins, with abandoned cities, derelict vehicles and random convenience stores that still hold packages of neon-orange cheese crackers, a treat Temple loves. Temple soon finds a community barricaded in a high-rise building in a city. It looks as if she will be able to stay there for a while, but things turn bad. A fellow outsider assaults her and she fights him off, killing him in the process. His brother, Moses, swears vengeance against her. With the help of a woman in the community, Temple takes a car and flees west.
On the road, Temple connects with another man, Maury, who is either autistic or severely developmentally delayed. With Moses in close pursuit, Temple and Maury drive across the southeast, heading west to Texas. Along the way, the reader sees through Temple’s eyes the various stratagems humans have used to rebound from the zombie disaster; communities like the first one, trying for a pre-zombie normalcy; an estate with a family acting out a fantasy of genteel southern life; and isolated humans who have used the excuse of the plague to indulge in the worst atrocities, rationalizing that God has given them this right.
This world is tragic and horrifying, but Temple doesn’t judge. Imagine if you had been born in Kosovo just after the civil war started; the only frame of reference you would have for life would be a war zone. Temple does not even judge the slugs, seeing them as animals, not God’s curse or evil beings themselves. Temple’s spirituality, on display from the first page of the book, does not spring from any particular ideology or teaching; it almost seems innate. In this horror of a world, Temple sees God and wonder everywhere, even when she is locked in a cell in a torture chamber.
The book contrasts Temple with her pursuer, Moses. Moses is old enough to remember the world before the plague, and this seems to inform the bloodstained code of honor that he holds. Even though Moses acknowledges that his brother did wrong, that fact will not stop him from killing Temple if he can.
If the book has problems, it is with the world-building. Twenty-five years is time enough for a government and infrastructure to have re-emerged, and things like gas stations with “pumps that still work” and random locations with electricity seem just too convenient. I was willing to overlook the illiterate Temple’s prodigious vocabulary for two reasons; first, because as a southern girl she comes from a long and honorable oral tradition; and second, because there’s an implication, subtle but definite, that her illiteracy is the result of brain function, not poor education, since Temple may be something more than a regular pre-apocalypse human.
I have more trouble with Temple when she seems to draw on experiences she could not have had. Why would she know what a ventriloquist’s dummy looks like? On the other hand, I firmly believe that processed cheese crackers would last well into the next century.
Bell’s exquisite prose helps smooth out the wrinkles as well. Whether it’s dialogue or narrative, Bell weaves a shimmery carpet of words, whether beautiful, terrible, or both:
Mississippi is one of the words she recognizes when she sees it. All the squiggles in a row, separated by the vertical lines. She sees a sign that says Mississippi on it and it doesn’t surprise her. Along the roads the trees have been overpowered by kudzu, like a blanket of green tossed over all the shapes of the earth. Driving through small towns, she finds canted treehouses with rotted doors, plastic slides toppled over on front lawns, whole communities gone dense with the smells of honeysuckle and verbena. Elsewhere, on rolling stretches of back road, desolate plantation land has long ago gone back to wildflower and weed, grazed over by riderless horses traveling in packs and mewling cows standing silhouetted on the hilltop horizons.
In The Road, the boy says to his father, “We’re the good guys, right?” In The Reapers are the Angels, Temple asks, “Am I evil?” In each book, characters wrestle with the gap between survival-based behavior and moral behavior. Is it possible to have morality, community, connection, when you are fighting for survival? The father in The Road, and Moses in Reapers, would give you one answer. Temple would give you another. Who is right? The Reapers Are the Angels will help the reader decide the answer to that question.