The start of the book, which occurs before the asteroid strike, portrays “life as we knew it,” and what is seen as valuable seems familiar and normal to the average American reader. Most obviously, money is used as currency—and even in the days just after the disaster, cash is the only thing people will accept. Meanwhile, Miranda, the teenage girl protagonist, values school, grades, friends, boys, and ice skating. After the disaster, however, things change drastically, and what is seen as valuable and viewed as a commodity shifts as well. Cash quickly becomes useless, and people start to trade, steal, or hoard wood, gasoline, and food. Schooling becomes less important—districts are consolidated and very few students or teachers show up—while other kinds of knowledge become more valuable. With radio, TV, and the internet becoming unreliable and then failing entirely, new of the outside world becomes precious. Practice knowledge, such as Peter’s medical knowledge but also Laura’s gardening hobby, ability to cook, and the family’s skiing skills, all become suddenly lifesaving. In comparison, the intellectual professions that Laura and Miranda’s father Hal had pursued before the disaster—as an author and college professor—are no longer as useful.
As the impact of the disaster continues and deepens, it’s not only the value of skills and goods that are reassessed, but also relationships and, even more fundamentally, the basic value of other people. In the beginning of the book, Miranda is focused on friendships and prom dates, but as the book progresses her social circle constricts dramatically. When she does enter into a brief romantic relationship, both she and the boy, Dan, realize that they cannot have a future—as feelings for each other would endanger their own survival. For instance, at one point Miranda leaves a food distribution line to try to find Dan to tell him him about the food being provided, and almost misses out on getting food for her family. In the evaluation of family vs. friends vs. neighbors, then, it quickly becomes clear that the key to survival for the characters is to only focus on immediate family. Every other relationship becomes devalued and a potential liability. Miranda’s friend Sammi, meanwhile, gives up on her typical teenage values and begins a relationship with a forty-year-old man who has the connections to ensure her survival and comfort in the changed world. As the dire situation worsens and the chances of survival begin to be a zero sum game in which one person getting resources means another person not getting them, characters start to constantly assess other character’s worthiness of receiving resources and, by extension, of continuing to live.
Essentially, the arc of the novel is about stripping things down to what is truly valuable—and to reveal that what is valuable is very dependent on the nature of one’s situation. Pfeffer’s exploration of what becomes valuable or is considered a “commodity” in different situations, then, encourages readers to consider what is truly valuable in their own lives, what is truly valuable in the civilization that we take for granted but is in fact just “life as we know it,” and how those priorities might change in a disaster situation.
Currency, Commodities, and Value ThemeTracker
Currency, Commodities, and Value Quotes in Life as We Knew It
Watching sitcoms was like eating toast. Two months ago, it was so much a part of my life I didn’t even notice it. But now it feels like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and the Wizard of Oz all rolled into one.
“I know Mom doesn’t want us to die,” I said. I thought really hard about what I wanted to say so it would come out right. “But I think maybe she doesn’t want us to live, either. We should just hide in our rooms and not feel anything and if we get rescued, great, but if we don’t, well, maybe we’ll live a little longer. If you can call it living. I know Mom tells you things she doesn’t tell me, but am I wrong? Because I really feel that way more and more. I’d like to be wrong, because it scares me if Mom feels that way. But I don’t think I am.”
Maybe we’ll be lucky. Maybe something good will happen that we can’t imagine just now. But we have to prepare for the worst. You and I and Matt and Jonny have to prepare for the worst. We have to assume frosts in August. We have to assume no power and no food coming and no gas for the car and no oil for the furnace. Up till now we’ve been playacting survival, but from now on we have to take it seriously.
I write stuff down in here and I don’t read it. Things are bad enough without having to remind myself of just how bad things are.
But I just read what I wrote a couple of days ago. All about how wonderful school is and all that crap. Tests. Whoo-whoo. Report cards. Whoo-whoo. The future. Biggest whoo-whoo of them all.
“If we all die, you’ll leave,” I said. “Because you’ll be strong enough to. And maybe someplace in America or Mexico or somewhere things are better and you’ll manage to get there. And then Mom’s life and Matt’s and mine won’t have been a waste.”
Every day when I got to sleep I think what a jerk I was to have felt sorry for myself the day before. My Wednesdays are worse than my Tuesdays, my Tuesdays way worse than my Tuesday of a week before. Which means every tomorrow is going to be worse than every today. Why feel sorry for myself today when tomorrow’s bound to be worse?
We hugged each other and said we should see more of each other, but I doubt that we will. We don’t want anyone else to know how much food we have or firewood. And they don’t want us to know, either.
Do people ever realize how precious life is? I know I never did before. There was always time. There was always a future.
Maybe because I don’t know anymore if there is a future, I’m grateful for the good things that have happened to me this year.