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The Death of Grass by John Christopher

Someplace recently I read about the difference between stress and anxiety – that stress is the difficulty in dealing with real present time issues that we have to find a way of taking action to solve – and anxiety is worry about events we have no control over, that may – or may not – happen in the future.

A few weeks ago I read Eric Walters most recent novel, The Rule of Thre3 – another in the popular genre of “End of the World as We Know It” books for teens. I was reminded of a book I read over 40 years ago – No Blade of Grass by John Christopher – a book that was first published in 1956. Reading these books raised my level of anxiety – I had to remind myself that this fiction, no matter how real it felt as I was reading.

I discovered the John Christopher novel has been re-titled The Death of Grass and re-issued as a Penguin modern classic. Re-reading this book I was very struck by the similarity to The Rule of Thre3, and realize there are only so many variations on a theme – there is a threat to human life by something that has happened to the world, in this case a virus that has killed all plants in the grain family. Beginning in China and spreading to Europe and the British Isles there is soon a fear of famine as the virus rapidly kills the crops.

We have two brothers, John and David Custance, who grew up visiting their grandfather’s farm in a secluded valley in northern England. David inherited the farm while John became an engineer in London. When the fear of famine becomes alarming, John and his family, encouraged by a family friend, make the decision to leave London and head for the farm, knowing the valley can support other crops and is situated so that it can be protected against intruders.

What follows is a difficult journey, involving horrific decisions taken to protect the families and those who join them along the way. The introduction, which I read after reading the novel and recommend you do the same, compares The Death of Grass to The Lord of the Flies. How would we each behave if we could survive only by taking the life of another? When I first read this book I did not have children – I don’t know how I felt about survival, I simply read it for entertainment. But it did stay with me – and reading it now as not only a parent, but also a grandparent, I think very differently about how I might behave in order to protect my own family. I suspect that as the Custance family discovers, civilization is stripped away pretty quickly when it really does come to kill – or be killed.

I’ve now looked up other books by John Christopher originally published many years ago, and have discovered that his most well known series, a trilogy for young readers, The Tripods, has been re-issued recently.

The Death of Grass ends on a hopeful note – the survivors faced with the challenge of building a new and safe place to live. I hope the books for young readers are as hopeful.

It has been many years since I have read science-fiction novels, but now that I’ve had a taste there is another one, Earth Abides, buried in my memory – by George R Stewart – published in 1949 – and, guess what, it has also been re-issued. I suspect it may only elevate my general level of anxiety but it will keep me worrying about fantasy instead of reality. 

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