Myla Goldberg's books include The False Friend and Bee Season.
Growing up, I had pretty much the same interests as any other early '80s kid: I loved The Muppets and Schoolhouse Rock, and I was obsessed with mutually assured nuclear destruction.
In those Cold War days, apocalypse was in the air, from Sting crooning that he hoped the Russians loved their children too, to a made-for-TV spectacle called The Day After, which branded the image of a mushroom cloud into my 12-year-old brain and inspired me to craft my own survival plan: When the time came and war seemed imminent, I would hop a plane with my family and head to Australia. There, on that isolated island continent far removed from the U.S. and the USSR, I would live happily ever after.
Then, one day while browsing the shelves of my middle school library, I picked up On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. A title like that could have inferred young love or a summer idyll.
This was not that book.
Carried by taut, no-nonsense prose, I entered a post-WWIII world, in which nuclear blasts have already eradicated life from the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. The planet's only remaining habitable places are parts of Africa, South America, New Zealand and ... you guessed it, Australia.
Being old enough to know what catastrophe was, but still young enough to think that it made exceptions, I had that almost inborn childhood instinct that the larger rules of the world — death, war, sickness — applied to everyone but myself. Now, my survival plan had been vindicated in print, and everything I had ever thought about my own exceptionalism had been proved true!
Then I got to page 10.
As it turns out, most of On the Beach is taken up by the people of Australia waiting to die. The radioactive fall-out clouds are drifting ever southward, and there's nothing anyone can do but track their inexorable progress. Peter Holmes, a newlywed with a young wife and baby daughter, is assigned to one of the world's last remaining submarines, which travels north to investigate the source of a faint radio signal, in the hopes of making contact with whomever is sending it.
There is no happy ending. The submarine mission only confirms the thoroughness of the devastation, leaving everyone in Australia — including Peter and his young family — with no option but to try to find small ways to enjoy their remaining time together before succumbing to agonizing radiation sickness or opting out quickly and painlessly with free suicide pills supplied by the government. The only small solace the book offers is that it is possible to face the end with our humanity intact.
By the end of On the Beach, I had come to the sobering realization that nuclear war makes no exceptions, not even for young girls.
I'm grateful to have read On the Beach when I did. At some point, we're all forced to confront how complicated and heartbreaking life can be, and how often it defies the best-made plans. I can think of no gentler way to have been introduced to that lesson.