***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a quite serviceable novel with straightforward themes, centered around the only apocalyptic scenario I've ever believed in YA lit.
The Plot, so I won't forget it.
If you've visited Yellowstone, you've marveled at the hot springs, sulfur pots, and geysers. They're there because we have a supervolcano brewing under the northwest corner of Wyoming that has exploded three times in the last 2.1 million years. Someday it will blow again. (Most likely we'll have destroyed ourselves or gone extinct before that happens.) A supervolcano event is like Mount Vesuvius on steroids: not only will all living things nearby be killed and buried in several feet of ash, but the entire earth will be changed--geologically and climatically.
Alex Halprin is a fifteen-year-old who would rather not go to Warren IL to visit his uncle and aunt. After a disagreement, his parents take only his sister and allow him to stay home. He's playing World of Warcraft when the power goes out, he hears something like thunder, and a giant boulder crashes into his house, trapping him under his desk. Alex frees himself and his neighbor friends take him in--everyone sleeping in the giant tub in the master bathroom for safety. When one of his neighbors behaves erratically and kills an intruder--a first sign of the social deterioration to come--Alex sets off on his own, hoping to make his way to Warren to find his family. The muddled fire department response (working on autopilot but not comprehending the magnitude of the problem), and the uncertainty on Alex's part and the part of his neighbors--were all quite believable. In a real crisis, it takes a while to mentally adjust.
On his journey, he runs into an unsavory character named Target who tries to kill him. (If I remember correctly, Alex pokes one of his eyes out and escapes.) But Alex has been injured and may be dying. He struggles to a farm where he sees a girl and her mother grinding corn in a barn using a bicycle-driven grist mill, and he collapses inside. Darla and her mom, Gloria, nurse him back to health. Darla is suspicious, resentful of his intrusion (another mouth to feed), and great at engineering and mechanics. (Hooray for strong female characters.) Alex helps with chores (mainly digging through ash for dried corn stalks), slowly winning Darla's trust. The Edmunds' farm has a fresh-water well, so they're better off than most.
Target finds the farm with a criminal accomplice, who brutally rapes and murders Gloria. Alex kills the accomplice, and later kills Target. Alex and Darla set off to find his uncle's farm together, facing the ordeals of living outside in the winter, scavenging for food and water, with so much ash that Alex must cross-country ski through it. They try to save a little girl dying of hypothermia along the way, fending off her protective mother to do so, but fail. They leave food for the family instead--food that Darla points out they can't afford to give.
They're picked up by a FEMA truck, but when they're taken to a camp, they discover the administrators are corrupt and the thousands of inhabitants are slowly dying of hunger and cold. (The camp authorities refuse to retrieve a barge-full of grain that Alex and Darla found, instead passing the location off to superiors in exchange for kickbacks.) Children receive slightly more food rations from a church organization that visits the camp, but not enough to survive. Darla gets a job as a mechanic fixing tractors and trucks, and eventually breaks down the camp's fence, freeing Alex and the other survivors. Alex and Darla narrowly escape, and make it to Warren, where Alex finds his uncle, aunt, cousins, and sister. It turns out Alex's parents left five weeks ago to try to find him. Alex wants to go out to search for them, worried about their survival, but his uncle forbids it. (Alex and Darla want to sleep in the same bed, too, and it takes the uncle a while to allow it.) Darla constructs another mill, which will allow the family to trade services for food, improving their future. The uncle breaks a leg, the doctor in Warren accepts payment in the form of kale (the only source of Vitamin C around), and Alex and Darla decide to stay and help the uncle through his recovery, knowing they'll leave in the spring if they don't hear back from Alex's parents. The book ends at this uncertain but relatively restful moment.
Theme of growing up. This is a true coming-of-age novel, where the main character is forced to become an adult (and quickly) because of the unusual, extreme circumstances he finds himself in. From a bored, slightly jaded teen who plays video games too many hours a day, to a physically and emotionally strong partner, Alex's character growth is substantial, and portrayed clearly and gradually. Mullin highlights this growth by showing the knee-jerk reaction the adults in his life have to his youth, forcing Alex to confront them with his accomplishments in order to get them to really see the change in him. He understands, better than they seem to, the new world they find themselves in--everything has changed, and Darla is more than a girlfriend, she's his support structure, and a reason he continues to fight.
In the U.S. we have a lot of smart, creative pre-teens and teens, many of whom have been privileged enough never even to have endured power failures for more than several hours. In this way Ashfall is almost a modern update of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet for young readers: they get to vicariously explore how a seemingly average teen like Alex can learn to take care of himself, and perhaps wonder whether, like Alex, they would exceed their own expectations, becoming good and resourceful people.
Teen voice. I found Alex's voice and internal thoughts to be believable and realistic, without much indulgence in beautiful prose or elaborate description. (I think this sort of serviceable prose is what many reviewers actually require for the category "good for reluctant readers," and I'm not sure how I feel about that.) The first page gives a pretty good example of the vocal range in the book: teen-like, with occasional cliches and simple metaphors. (In this case the metaphor is a near-miss for me. I've hoarded difficult memories, but I can't imagine them feeling hard and sharp under my skin.)
But that Friday was pretty normal at first. I argued with Mom again after school. That was normal, too; we fought constantly. The topics were legion: my poor study habits, my video games, my underwear on the bathroom floor--whatever. I remember a lot of those arguments. That Friday they only fueled my rage. Now they're little jewels of memory I hoard, hard and sharp under my skin. Now I'd sell my right arm to a cannibal to argue with Mom again.
I also thought that Darla's voice in dialogue was not as real as Alex's, though I appreciated that she was no-nonsense, with an engineering mind, and a sense of priorities. At times, however, she felt almost like a stylized version of a strong girl.
In sum. This series is a solid addition to children's lit--a good, very competent and engrossing story for school librarians to pass along to young readers, but not necessarily a mind-expanding crossover for adult readers.