An asteroid strikes the moon, triggering a sequence of natural disasters on earth in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, released by Harcourt in 2006. Life (as teenager Miranda and her family know it) comes to an abrupt halt, and they must make do with the food and resources they have on hand. That inaugural installment of The Last Survivors trilogy, which also includes The Dead and the Gone and This World We Live In, has sold a combined 250,000 copies in hardcover and paper, and has motivated two Utah bloggers to mimic the survivalist lifestyle forced upon the books’ characters, and to chronicle their experiments online.
Mette Ivie Harrison, who has published five novels—most recently The Princess and the Snowbird, a YA fantasy released by HarperCollins last April—has staged what she labeled “LAWKI month” for three consecutive years. She launched the first experiment in summer 2008, after reading Life As We Knew It to her four oldest children (she has five in all, now ages eight to 16). “One night my son, who was 10 at the time, jumped up and ran downstairs to look through the storage room where we keep our food. He came back up and said, ‘We’ll be fine. We have more food than they had in the book.’ He was so gripped by the novel—it felt so real to him.”
Realizing that Life As We Knew It was somewhat frightening to her kids, Harrison decided “as an inoculation against their fear” to experiment with surviving for a month with only the food stocked in the family larder. Given that the Harrisons are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which advocates having a year’s supply of food on hand at all times, their provisions were likely more bountiful than the average American family’s, but still limited.
During each LAWKI month, Harrison did no food shopping, though (when school was in session) her children did purchase school lunch, which she observes they came to view as “a luxury—they got meat and fresh fruits and vegetables, which we quickly ran out of at home.” She accepted produce that friends shared from their gardens, and made an exception to the ban on restaurant food on one child’s birthday, when she allowed takeout pizza.
Harrison, who tracked her family’s LAWKI month experiences on her blog, says that her children came away from these ventures “believing we could survive if such a scenario were to happen in real life, which was the original impulse—to reassure them.” Though the author says she “would love to do this again,” the verdict among her children is mixed. “My 13-year-old hated it and never wants to do it again, but he’s a boy and is always hungry,” she reports. But her 16-year-old daughter, who is less ravenous, found it “a fun, different experience.”
Inspired by Harrison’s online accounts of her experiments and by reading Life As We Knew It, Shannon Wright also decided to give her family—which includes four teenagers—a taste of a faux disaster scenario and launched a LAWKI month in late August.
“We’ve always try to be thoughtful on the preparedness issue, since we live 15 minutes from two major earthquake faults,” she says. “And my husband is a pharmacist who does regular immunization training, so the idea of a global pandemic is in the forefront of his mind.” Wright says that her family, also members of the Mormon Church, “regularly tries to have enough supplies and food at home so that we can keep safe as long as needed.”
Wright did stock up on some additional food ahead of time, as she usually does as fall approaches. “We bought eight gallons of milk for the month, though we regularly drink that in less than 10 days,” she says. The day the Wrights began LAWKI month, the parents brought their teens to the store for one last shopping spree and gave each $10. “We told them to buy whatever they thought they’d miss,” says Wright. “They made some interesting choices: one purchased packages of ramen and one bought cologne.”
Wright mined her small vegetable garden for produce, which she also traded with several neighbors. She experimented with canning, tackling salsa and applesauce, and baked in a sun oven. The family relied more on bicycles and less on cars for transportation, did not go out to eat at all, and played a lot of board games together. All of which Wright reported on her blog, which she says had some 900 page views during the month. “I got many positive responses,” she says. “Some people thought it was intriguing, though a few were pretty cynical. Several said it was nice to watch someone else doing this.”
Asked what her family learned from their LAWKI month, Wright responds, “I’d say we learned gratitude for all we have and learned that we have enough to meet our needs, which is a relief to me. That knowledge is something we could never have gained in another way, and I don’t think we’ll ever forget it.” Next, Wright hopes to turn off the electricity—and have everyone turn to books—for a weekend.
“I think it’s astonishing—and I know these people are much braver than I am,” remarks Susan Beth Pfeffer about these LAWKI month stints. The author, whose next novel, Blood Wounds, is due from Harcourt in fall 2011, says, “I eat a lot of fresh food and have a small freezer, so I live at the supermarket.” She notes that she hears from readers who tell her that they went to the grocery store to stock up—just in case. “It’s gratifying to hear that response, though I didn’t write the novel with that in mind,” she says. “I always think everything will work out, so I’m generally unprepared—though I did just finally buy a flashlight.”
Pfeffer’s mail from young readers often includes comments that The Last Survivors novels made them appreciate all that they have. “In fact, I got a letter today from a kid who said, ‘I know I can get along without electricity, food, and water, but we have to have family,’ ” she says. “That’s nice to hear, though personally, I like electricity, food, and water!”