At its core, Life As We Knew It is a story about what it takes to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. After an asteroid collision alters the rotational path of the moon, the world is faced with tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, drastic climate change, and other catastrophes. The main characters: Miranda, her mother, Laura, and two brothers, Jonny and Matt, face immense and ever-changing dangers as they struggle to adapt to an unstable and unpredictable world and to accept that “life as they knew it” is forever altered.
In the days, then weeks, and months after the catastrophe, the hardships that the characters must face intensify. Slowly but surely they must endure and figure out how to live through the loss of, first, the basic physical comforts that they had always known, and then even more fundamental needs like heat and food. But the family’s trials are not only physical. In fact, it is just as hard, if not harder, to endure the spiritual and emotional trials of the catastrophe. Miranda and her brothers all had hopes, dreams, and ambitions before the asteroid strike. In the world afterwards, they must deal with the fact that those dreams are gone. Their new goals aren’t professional teams or college degrees, but making it through another week or month. The characters must also endure the way that their struggle to survive changes their values, their basic selves. In this new world where resources are limited, acts of altruism, such as contributing to a blanket drive or helping a sick neighbor or friend are revealed to be dangerous, as acts that can endanger one’s self or family. Meanwhile, the character’s begin to feel both cut off from their own humanity—they can’t process or feel connected to the millions of people dying across the world, even as they know it is a tragedy of vast proportions. At the same time, the family must also watch as people around them, such as their beloved neighbor Mrs. Nesbitt, die. Such deaths fill those who live with both terrible grief and a sense of inevitability about their own deaths which can be terrible to endure.
All this leads Miranda and her family to debate the cost of their survival, whether it’s “worth it” to survive or if they even want to continue to live during such unrelentingly bleak times. As the book demonstrates, in such dire situations, people live on not for themselves but for others, such as the way Miranda struggles with how much it would pain her mother and brothers to watch her die. And yet, even such loving thoughts are complicated in a catastrophe, For example, Miranda also realizes that if she does die, there will be more food to feed her family. Her death could be a kind of gift that aids the survival of the rest of her family.
As Miranda spends her diary entries grappling with the decision to endure in a world that feels inhospitable to survival, Pfeffer is asking larger questions about what makes life worth living. Each character has to grapple with determining what would be unendurable. For Miranda’s friend Megan’s mom, the death of her daughter drives her to suicide. Similarly, Miranda worries about her own mother’s ability to endure the death of her or her siblings. Through Miranda’s own conflicts and struggles, the reader is led to question their own ability to survive in extreme conditions—not only what skills are necessary, but also what would we be willing to sacrifice in order to survive? And, at what point does the cost of survival become unendurable?
Survival and Death ThemeTracker
Survival and Death Quotes in Life as We Knew It
“I’m the one not caring. I’m the one pretending the earth isn’t shattering all around me because I don’t want it to be... I don’t want anything more to be afraid of. I didn’t start this diary for it to be a record of death.”
“You think we’re going to die,” I said.
Any sadness immediately evaporated and rage took its place. “Don’t you ever say that to me again!” she yelled. “None of us is going to die. I will not allow that to happen.”
“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 know Dan thinks I’m lucky that I’ve been “untouched” by everything that’s happened. And I know I’m self-pitying to think otherwise. But sometimes I wonder if the big cannonball horror of knowing someone you love has died is all that much worse than the everyday attrition of life.
But without hearing what’s going on in the real world, it’s easy to think there is no more real world anymore, that Howell, PA, is the only place left on earth.
What if there is no more New York or Washington or LA? I can’t even imagine a London or Paris or Moscow anymore.
How will we know? I don’t even know what time it is anymore.
But for that one moment I felt so weak, so helpless. I felt nothing but fear and despair and the most awful need to be anyplace else. I told myself it was hunger, but I knew that was a lie.
As long as Mom was all right, I could fool myself into thinking we’d all be all right. But even though I knew Mom could have fallen anytime and sprained her ankle anytime, this felt as though it was the beginning of the end.
I’ve never really thought about what it would be like to be an old woman. Of course nowadays I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to be any kind of woman.
But I hope when I get closer to death, however old I might be, that I can face it with courage and good sense the way Mrs. Nesbitt does. I hope that’s a lesson I’ve truly learned.
“But as long as we don’t know what the future is going to bring us, we owe it to ourselves to keep living. Things could get better. Somewhere people are working on solutions to all this. They have to be. It’s what people do. And our solution is to stay alive one day at a time. Everyone dies in increments, Miranda. Every day we’re one day closer to death. But there’s no reason to rush into it. I intend to stay alive as long as I possibly can and I expect the same from you.”
“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.”
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.
I don’t even know why I’m writing this down, except that I feel fine and maybe tomorrow I’ll be dead. And if that happens, and someone should find my journal, I want them to know what happened.
I’d left a record. People would know I had lived. That counted for a lot.
But today, when I am 17 and warm and well fed, I’m keeping this journal for myself so that I can always remember life as we knew it, life as we know it, for a time when I am no longer in the sunroom.