An Apocalyptic Florida Christmas

If you like Florida settings, nuclear war, and survival stories, check out Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon."

Now that the semester has wrapped up and the colored lights hang incongruously from palm trees swaying in the temperate breezes ... well, Christmas in Florida will never cease to confuse my senses. I was going to say something about reflecting on the past year and the past school semester specifically, which is what I generally do around this time of year.

So I thought, apropos of the opening sentiments, to offer a reading recommendation for this holiday season. Incidentally, it's a book I taught in my Florida Literature class in November, and it got a  near-enthusiastic reception from my students. Not sure if that's necessarily a selling point for anyone, but if you like "local color," this novel will provide that in spades, as well as some poignant, somber reminders about the world - and the Florida - that was.

Alas, Babylon, written by Pat Frank (a UF alum) and published in 1959, is set in the fictional central Florida town of "Fort Repose," on "Pasco Creek" in "Timucuan County." From geographical clues in the novel, I gather it's about equidistant between Orlando and Tampa. The geography alone doesn't make the story compelling; it's the horrific events of "The Day" in December that sober the reader. Following an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, in which MacDill Air Force Base, Orlando, Jacksonville Naval Air Station, and most of South
Florida are obliterated in the course of a single day, Christmas goes un-recognized and un-celebrated in tiny Fort Repose.

I won't engage in "spoiling" the story, the character development, the various ways in which the stunned survivors cope with the realities of the "new world" after gasoline, electricity, prepared/packaged foods, and medications run out. I'll just ask the reader here to contemplate, in this season of plenty -- in many cases, of over-indulgence - just what the implications of such losses are for both Pat Frank's 1950s audience and for us today. It was one way I asked my students to approach the novel, and they suggested (and I agreed) that we'd have a harder time coping
now than we would fifty years ago. We are so much more dependent on the luxuries and conveniences of post-industrial society in 2011, and so much less learned in ways of daily sustenance -- farming, hunting, water purification, even navigation -- that the losses would impact us much more acutely.

And if this sounds somber for the holiday season, I don't think it's a coincidence that Frank set his story in December, and that Christmas passes without a comment after the nuclear strike. Perhaps he was also trying to make a point about consumption and privilege. It was brought up in class discussions, too, that the survivors of the story are lucky to live in Florida; the harsh winters of the north might have proved insurmountable for those stripped of fuel and electricity.

Perhaps most crucially, the nuclear war and the downfall of rural Floridian "society" depicted in Alas, Babylon acts as the ultimate racial leveling device: gone are segregated classrooms, drinkin fountains, and restrooms. One detects a weariness on the author's part with the "traditions" adhered to so fervently by Fort Repose's citizens, who are often portrayed (before the bombings) as suspicious, prejudiced, and afraid of outside influence. The nuclear devastation acts in some ways as a giant "reset" switch for humanity's notions of interaction, and acts as a symbol for Frank's critique of Jim Crow laws in the South (no small amount of courage on his part there, given the domestic tensions at its time of publication).

Not exactly the most uplifting holiday reading fare, I grant you that. But reading it again for class this semester, I realized that Alas, Babylon is not only a nice piece of "Floridana" or a post-apocalyptic survival tale: it is also a timely reminder to measure how well we act towards and respond to others, and to not invest too much in our material possessions. The latter may easily vanish; the former is a mind-set we'd all do well to carry around.

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