Post-apocalyptic 'Though the Earth Gives Way' imagines humans trying to start over

·3 min read
Though the Earth Gives Way. By Mark S. Johnson.
Though the Earth Gives Way. By Mark S. Johnson.

“Remember to get the weather in,” Hemingway advised, “–weather is important.” Famous for leaving things out, Papa always put a dash of meteorology in his stories —cold autumn rain, heat rising from a plain, sun-rotted snow — to tie make-believe characters to the verifiable world. Weather was the realistic backdrop that made the whole puppet-show-of-fiction work.

Weather starts in the foreground of Pulitzer-Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Mark Johnson’s "Though the Earth Gives Way." Hurricanes, droughts, tornadic winds – the extreme weather we’re used to seeing on the nightly news comes home in Johnson’s post-apocalyptic first novel. “We watched these distant disasters pretending the trouble would never reach our shores.” But in 2028, they do. The East Coast is underwater, the West afire and the highways in-between staggered with urban refugees. One of them, Elon, pushes a shopping cart across the withered landscape of Michigan until he joins other weary refugees at an abandoned retreat center.

At first, Johnson follows the breathless lead of Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road" – the shopping cart, sinister locals, ashy rains – but that’s not his literary model. Once Elon settles into the retreat center, the novel changes gears, becomes more digressive and slips into a pattern. Every night after scavenging for food, the pilgrims gather around a campfire and one of them tells a story — exactly the set-up of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century "The Decameron." In both novels, young men and women hold out in the countryside (a villa outside Florence/a Midwest retreat center) and divert themselves from a raging calamity (the Black Death/climate collapse) by telling stories. In either case, the stories avoid the immediate threat and focus on the vagaries of human nature.

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How societies fall apart and might begin again are Johnson’s primary concerns, not bad weather. “A social experiment was taking place, “ Elon observes. “We were its pilgrims. What would it take to start over?”

For all their variety — Syrian refugee, lesbian couple, ex-white supremacist — the pilgrims share a common sensibility: guilt for the climate disaster as well as the annoying habit of internalizing the problem. Instead of blaming politicians for accommodating the fossil fuel industry, Elon kicks himself for not biking to work and composting.

“How did I, a believer in science, end up complicit in the disaster? … What right did I have to the moral high ground when I failed to change my gas-guzzling, wasteful behavior?” He even rues the Save the Earth bumper sticker on his car. “How f---ed up was that?”

Right. If everyone’s equally to blame, coal companies and non-composting citizens alike, then nobody is.

I hope "Though the Earth Gives Way" will be read as a parable on the limits of good intentions. For all their talk and soul-searching, the pilgrims don’t have many ideas for the future. When the lone teenager at the retreat center, angry at the older generation for burning up his future, turns incendiary, you think: Why not?

John Hildebrand is a Wisconsin writer whose most recent book is "Long Way Round: Through the Heartland by River."

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 'Though the Earth Gives Way' imagines humans trying to start over

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