Well I jumped on the bandwagon with this one, following in the footsteps of the Mt. Benson report as well as the Crumbolst response. Unfortunately, June 23rd accidently erased his archives, so I can't compare his reaction to the others. I do know that he is using the book in his 9th grade humanities class, which will be very interesting to hear about.
It took me a while to realize how different this book is from the rest of the Post-Apocalyptic genre. As the previous readers mentioned above have noted, it is the grand-daddy of the genre, since it was written in 1949 and it really does avoid the standard tact of some kind of conflict after the fall. Rather, the nature of the apocalypse is relatively gentle. Almost everybody dies from a disease. But there is no horror of violence and fear. It all happens very quickly and society is very ordered about their response, right up into the end. So for the protagonist, who was up in the mountains, it's more like the world just emptied out all of a sudden. We get to see the slow degradation of what man has left behind, as some animals die out and others multiply. Building begin to collapse, forest fires rage, the roads deteriorate. The first third of the book is a thorough and delicious exploration of this slow reversion to nature.
The rest of the book then deals with society as the narrator finds a wife and a few other people and they start a little community. There are conflicts, but only one major one and it is not the point of the narrative. The narrator is much more concerned with the graual detachment from the traditions, behaviours and learnings from the past and how this affects the older people (who were around in the past) and the younger ones differently.
By the end of the book, the narrator is old and feeble and the last person around before the disease came. Society and mankind look like they are going to begin again, but down a very different path, semi-primitive but perhaps socially more sophisticated and maybe freer.
Overall, I'm not sure if this is a pessimistic or optimistic vision. It almost seems more like a very indifferent anthropological study, as if the author just wanted to explore "what would happen". The main character is a geographer and is constantly positing himself as a researcher, just on the outside of society.
I have two points of disagreement with the author. First, he makes a huge distinction between intelligent people and stupid people. I don't know if this is because of the period, but he seems to be making eugenic assumptions. There is a half-wit girl who (thought treated with kindness by the tribe) is treated as basically a non-human. There is no sense at all that she might have something to offer. All the children are considered unteachable because they came from "unintelligent" parents. He theorizes that the reason their parents survived the shock of the post-disease world was because they were not intellectually sensitive enough to appreciate the horror of it. I found this to be a limiting scope on the study of how man would react to such world. That kind of thinking was quite common at the time.
I found that it played into his views on education. The narrator just gives up on teaching the kids because they (except one) don't have the bright eyes and natural desire for learning. Well what kid does? If all kids wanted to learn, we'd all be teachers (or we wouldn't need any). It's the same with how sort of lame and pathetic the first wave of survivors were. He tried to suggest that it was because they could just scavenge, but I have a more optimistic view of human nature (at least in this context). We are a busy and progressing species. Even if we could just scavenge for food, there would be so many other projects that people would undertake. It could be that this took place in America. The people almost seemed like the cast of Survivor. Perhaps had it been Canada, some serious shit would have been getting done.
Overall, a really enjoyable book, though I found the prose a bit too lyrical at times. It does make you think about how humans would rebuild and paints a rich and detailed, though in my opinion, fundamentally flawed, picture of this process.