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“The Girl Who Owned A City” was published in 1975 by O.T. Nelson, the only novel he ever wrote. He supposedly wrote it simply to generate income for his house painting company; to this end, he didn’t look too far afield for inspiration, using his kids’ names for the protagonists and his childhood Chicago suburb as the setting. The book enjoyed laudable success at publishing time and manages to be remembered nearly fifty years later, partially due to some schools picking it up for their reading curricula.
This book captured my imagination back when I read it in middle school, and I have wanted to revisit it for some time. Perhaps our contemporary crises brought it back into my mind, as the events of the book take place in the wake of a devastating pandemic that has swept across America, sparing only those under the age of twelve. The plot centers on two kids, Lisa and her little brother, Todd, and how they navigate a post-apocalyptic world entrusted to a generation of young children.
The story is split into two major parts, the first focused on the smaller-scale plans of Lisa organizing the family units in their neighborhood into a makeshift militia to defend themselves against other roving gangs of kids. The latter half of the book continues with the expansion of their plans to inhabit an abandoned school and fill the titular “city” with hundreds of orphans.
The plot manages to stay on track and only elaborate on the apocalyptic setting where needed; there’s a danger of getting lost in the weeds when fleshing out a world that’s changed so drastically, a similar kind of dilemma faced by a lot of zombie media in the 00’s. The book maintains a grim and tense feeling without being overtly grisly, as it could have easily become, and thus slid into horror or melodrama. The narrative swings between long passages of procedural description, about how the kids learn to drive cars, create booby traps, or perform amateur surgery, and bed-time stories told by Lisa to Todd that serve as comprehensive summations of the book’s metaphors.
The author takes on a very libertarian view of an orphan-filled post-apocalyptic suburbia, assuring the readers that pre-teens and children would naturally champion the now-defunct concepts of labor markets and private property. However, it feels like the author trips over himself when attempting to align these ideals to the inherency of the protagonists’ successes, and thus the conclusion feels a bit unconvincing. Lisa has a late-stage eureka moment that attempts to be the capstone of the book’s themes, but the narrative rather abandons the kids to larger-scale versions of the problems they just dealt with without establishing how they intend to approach them any differently.
I’d like to see a modern attempt at this same kind of story, because I think the amount of thought and extrapolation that went into this whole concept is still an engaging read. There would be the understandable allure of turning it into yet another “Hunger Games” knockoff, a dead horse that feels well-beaten at this point, but some publishers still seem to find some residual body heat in. However, if a savvy author manages to avoid the ever-present tropes of racism, ableism, and eco-fascism that seep into the genre, we’d have another memorable, worthwhile story on our hands.