A book from after the apocalypse
Manon Steffan Ros is a Welsh author of more than 40 books, writes in the Welsh language and has only this fall published her latest novel, “The Blue Book of Nebo” (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2021) which has already won several literary prizes in Wales.
Having spent a good bit of time in Wales, myself during several trips abroad, and having written a collection of poems at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne, Wales, which was published by Carreg Gwalch, a Welsh publisher, and having edited an anthology of contemporary Celtic poetry that included Welsh language poets, I’m interested in anything literary coming from that country. So, when I saw Ros’ “The Blue Book of Nebo” reviewed in a recent New Yorker magazine, I ordered it in advance of its official release. Knowing it was about an apocalypse while we’re all currently living in an apocalyptic period of a covid pandemic and climate change didn’t stop me from ordering it, as I was anxious to check out this unfamiliar author and her prize-winning book.
In a word, Ros’ book is about and from the perspective of a young mother and her pre-teen son. She writes her book as from chapters taken from the diaries of both characters. In fact, that is exactly the style and format that the book takes as both mother and child (Rowenna and Dylan) literally have created a blank book, which they both write in on different days and which neither of them is allowed to read. So, as readers of Ross book, we swing back and forth from mother to son, from Rowenna to Dylan, to vicariously witness their lives during an enormous apocalypse where they are seemingly the only survivors from some sort of nuclear cataclysm.
We spend our time with Rowenna and Dylan following in their footsteps and in their minds — essentially living in apocalyptic times in their company:
“We still have the old calendar, the one from 2018, the year The End came. And we can’t be certain that we’re in the right place, because the days when we were sick at the beginning all went into one mess of time. But we agreed, Mam and me, to share The Blue Book of Nebo, as we have called it. She’ll write about the olden days and The End, and I’ll write about now, about how we live. And we’ve agreed not to read what the other has written, just in case. In case of what, I’m not sure.”
Essentially, Rowenna and Dylan are forced to live a lifestyle that is referred to today as “living off the grid.” In essence, living as did their Neanderthal ancestors thousands of years before. Dylan, at only 9 years old, has become a premature young adult and is doing hard physical labor that includes heavy chores, building, gardening and growing the food that they will survive on. He, it turns out, is the stable influence in the family (Rowenna is a single mom and Dylan doesn’t remember his dad) and works hard, as well, keeping his mother in line. One of the ways they both cope is by reading books they have scavanged from the shops, libraries and, eventually, empty homes of neighbors and people in the little town of Nebo.
“Our taste in books is very different. Mam reads quickly and reads the same ones over and over—The Brontes, Kate Atkinson, Bethan Gwanas, who writes as the world was before. She doesn’t read that much Welsh, but more than she used to. She loses herself in books. I read slowly and read the same book straight after I’ve finished it, so that I can memorize it in my mind. I know most of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by heart,” says Dylan.
Since this book is mainly about practical things, so, what happens during an apocalypse when one is sick or injured? We’re already into the third year of the Welsh armageddon near the end of “The Blue Book of Nebo” and much has taken place. Rowenna is writing in the Blue Book about this and she says: “Over the years, Dylan and I have needed a doctor, even the hospital sometimes for treatment. Now, we’ve learnt, Dyan and me, to use moss to absorb blood when a cut is large and exposed. We know that steam is the best thing for a cold or cough. We’ve learned that stinging ourselves with nettles heals a surpringly long list of ailments and illnesses.” And so it goes, day after day, interesting entry after interesting entry in their “Blue Book of Nebo.”
Despite all the hardship and trauma, Rowenna confesses near the end of the book: “I choose to keep the faith. And the things we believe in, the things we have faith in — we have all made the choice to believe.” At the very end, and on a positive note, we have Dylan looking back upon their years during the catastrophe, saying, “We sat in silence. I don’t know what Mam was thinking about, but I was remembering all the brilliant things, like the first plants, and all the stories in all the books. And our book, “The Blue Book of Nebo,” living amongst them on the shelf.” Kudos to Rowenna and Dylan for their fortitude and desire to endure during hard times. They are good role models for those of us living in our own set of catastrophes today.
(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributer to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”)