Alex Halprin is a few weeks away from his sixteenth birthday when, somewhat to his surprise, his mother agrees to let him stay home alone in Cedar Falls, Iowa, while his parents and his sister Rebecca head off for the annual summer visit to his uncle's farm in Warren, Illinois. The delightful sense of freedom only lasts a few hours, though, before an impossibly loud noise starts up, and something crashes into his house, and he's trapped under his desk while fire creeps closer and closer. He manages to dig his way out, and then is taken in by Darren and Joe, a neighboring couple whose home is, so far, undamaged.
The sky is dark. The deafeningly loud noise does not stop. Ash is falling from the sky. And the power, phones, and water are out. On a battery-powered radio, they mostly get static, but pick up bits and pieces of emergency broadcasts.
The Yellowstone supervolcano has erupted.
They huddle inside for several days, eating salad for every meal to use up the perishables first, and stuffing their ears with tissue and wearing headphones to shut out the noise and protect their hearing. Then looters break into the house, and during the fight Darren pulls out a gun and shoots all three of the intruders. Alex is shocked and horrified, and flees back to his own uninhabitable house. He decides he has to head for his uncle's farm in Illinois, and find his parents and sister. He salvages what equipment and supplies he can from the unburned portions of the house, and sets out on foot.
For the remainder of the book, we follow Alex's adventures and struggle to survive in a world turned suddenly stark and lifeless. He meets some people willing to give him a night's shelter and a meal once they know he's not a looter, and other people only too willing to kill him and take what little he has. And when he's out of water and hasn't had food in two days, he collapses in the barn of the Edmund farm. It's an interlude of peace, safety, and recovery--and then disaster strikes again, and Alex and Darla Edmund set out on a new round of travel, struggle, and survival in a wrecked landscape with almost nothing in the way of functioning society and government, with conditions improving only very slowly as they move eastward--and the remnant of the national government they find is one of the challenges they have to survive. They both have to learn new skills, learn to trust and rely on each other, and figure out how to remain civilized human beings in the face of the catastrophe and collapse all around them.
In some ways, Ashfall is reminiscent of the post-Apocalypse survival novels that were popular twenty years ago. It feels more grounded in reality, though, in part because Mike Mullin has worked hard at grounding the depiction of the effects of a supervolcano eruption in what scientists know and theorize about them, while also remaining grounded in a realistic but not unduly negative view of human nature. There's no magic, unexpected technology, and Darla is scary-smart but not more so than some people I've really known--and she's not without her own weaknesses and insecurities. Alex finds a toughness in himself that he hadn't expected, but which, again, isn't superhuman. These are real teenagers, dealing with horrific challenges. They're not saving the world; they're just making their little piece of it a little bit more habitable.
I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected when I started reading.
I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.