This contemporary apocalyptic novel is the first in an unnamed trilogy by Susan Beth Pfeffer and is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.
Life as We Knew It is written for ages, 7 to 12. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Sixteen-year-old Miranda finds her world thrown into chaos when an asteroid hits the moon and shifts it out of orbit, closer to Earth. The increase in its gravitational pull causes massive tidal waves and tsunamis that decimate many of the world’s coastal cities. Power is disrupted, phone and cell lines work only sporadically and the nation’s supply lines are in shambles.
Miranda’s mother goes into survival mode, recognizing quickly the need to stockpile not only food, but also basic necessities in case things get worse. She pulls Miranda and her younger brother, Jonny, out of school the following day, and, along with their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Nesbitt, tells them to buy everything they can at the grocery store. Their van is soon packed with canned foods, water bottles and toiletries. As things continue to worsen, her mother stockpiles winter clothes, batteries, oil lamps and flats of vegetable plants. Miranda believes her mom is overreacting, but she helps out however she can. She feels better about her life when her older brother, Matt, manages to return home from college to be with the family.
When volcanoes erupt around the world, things go from bad to worse. Dense clouds of ash block the sun’s rays, and Earth is thrown into premature winter. Electricity is nonexistent, crops die and insect-born diseases spread. Miranda’s friends either leave their Pennsylvania town, hoping to find things better by heading south, or begin to die of starvation. As snow comes early, the family is forced to eat just one meal a day, trying to conserve their dwindling supply of canned foods until things get better. A flu epidemic hits the town, and Miranda is the only one unaffected in her family. She cross-country skis to the hospital, hoping to find a family friend and doctor named Peter.
Instead, the two nurses on duty tell her that Peter died of the flu over the weekend. There’s no medicine left, and there’s nothing anyone can do to help Miranda’s family. Miranda vows to save her family, and over the course of the next few days, she nurses them back to health. Her mother and Jonny recover quickly, but Matt never regains all of his strength.
When their food supplies diminish to almost nothing, Miranda tells her family she’s going to ski into town to check for mail from their father. Matt knows she’s really leaving the house so she can die and their mother won’t have to see it. Miranda agrees to leave the skis nearby so Jonny can have them after she’s gone. She manages to make it to town. To her amazement, she finds people in city hall giving out bags of food. Each family member is allowed one bag of food a week. One of the men brings Miranda home, along with her four bags of food. He promises to bring more the following week. The family celebrates by eating a full meal that night, rejoicing that more is on the way. Three days later, Miranda turns 17. She writes in her journal that she’s figured out why she’s been documenting everything that has happened. It’s so she can always remember life as it used to be, and life as it is now, hoping that there will be a time when life will be better.
When the story opens, Miranda’s father calls to tell her of his new wife’s pregnancy. Her stepmother asks Miranda to be the baby’s godmother, although it seems to be more of an honorary title than a religious one. Miranda’s friend Megan is portrayed as a devout Christian who becomes fanatical as the world falls into chaos. Megan is enamored by the pastor of her church and follows his teachings without question. Megan tells Miranda that sex before marriage is a sin and that their friend Sammi is going to hell if she doesn’t repent of her behavior. Megan and her church friends often pray on the bus or in the cafeteria after the meteor hits. As food supplies dwindle, Megan begins to gives the small lunch the school provides her to friends because she feels God has called her to sacrifice. She tells Miranda that God sent the meteor to punish people for their sins. She admits to coveting other people’s things, such as their food and also lusting after boys. Megan believes God allows people to be tempted in order to see if they can rise above their human natures. Miranda jokes several times that the things she does — lusting after a boy or eating four cookies — might send her to hell.
As people watch the moon shift after the meteor, some bow their heads in prayer. The president of the United States calls for a national day of prayer and asks for God to bless the country. Miranda has many dreams about heaven, always in which she wants to come in but she’s locked out. In one dream, a friend who died tells her she can’t enter until she’s dead, and she’s not good enough to die. In another, she’s kept out and told you don’t always get what you want. One of the nurses at the hospital tells Miranda to pray if it will make her feel better, but there is nothing else they can do to help her family.
Miranda’s parents are divorced but remain friendly toward each other. Her father calls regularly and tries to remain a part of his children’s lives, even though he lives in another state. Instead of staying with his older children as the world slips into chaos, he honors his new wife’s desire to find her family. He stops by on his way south and provides the family with cases of food, toiletries, blankets and batteries. He makes sure to tell Miranda how proud he is of her and that he loves her. Miranda’s mother is portrayed as the classic, overworked-but-loving single mom. Miranda and her mother often fight, but it is a reaction to the extreme stress they are dealing with, not a dislike for each other. Throughout the book, Miranda’s mother sacrifices for her kids, including giving up some of her food, to try to make their supplies last longer. Miranda looks up to her brother Matt as a father figure. He always has time to talk with her and answer her questions. The pastor at Megan’s church comes across as authoritative and judgmental. Megan's mother tells him of Megan's death. Megan’s mother returns home and hangs herself. He believes Megan’s mother wanted to be buried beside her daughter in the churchyard but he wouldn’t allow it since she had committed suicide. While his congregation starves, he eats enough to not lose any weight.
Other belief systems
As she waits for the meteor to hit the moon, Miranda wonders about all the people in the past who used the stars to tell the future. Miranda and her family talk about how the dinosaurs evolved into birds and that even if humans die, other animals and insects will probably survive.
The characters use d--n and h---. God’s name is used with oh and oh my. Other objectionable words include sucks and pissed.
Miranda and her family hear about violent things occurring as people become desperate for food, but it is not graphically portrayed. Miranda is scared to be alone after she witnesses several young men with guns shooting at windows and looting. She is warned not to go to town alone. Megan’s mother hangs herself after her daughter dies. Hundreds of thousands of people die in the initial tidal waves and tsunamis after the moon’s orbit shifts. Many people, including Mrs. Nesbitt, die from starvation. The radio provides daily lists of people who have died throughout the country.
Megan jokes that the reason their friend Sammi gets so many dates is not because boys are into her but in her. Another boy makes a joke about mooning in class when the teacher discusses the upcoming meteor. Sammi’s parents encourage her to leave town with a 40-year-old man as supplies begin to dwindle.
Miranda and a friend from school, Dan, become much closer after the meteor hits. They spend a lot of time together swimming in a pond and sharing kisses when no one else is around. When Miranda’s mother discovers their relationship, she insists Miranda break it off. Her mother is afraid that if the relationship continues, Miranda may give into having sex with Dan and become pregnant. Miranda admits that though she likes Dan and would someday like to have sex, she doesn’t have the right feelings for Dan to sleep with him.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What was Miranda's family's disaster plan?
Does your family have a disaster plan?
What items would be important to have on hand if something like what happened in Miranda's world happened?
- How did the death of their friend Becky affect Miranda, Sammi and Megan differently?
How would you react to a friend’s illness or death?
Who might help you walk through these emotions?
- What are some products that you depend on every day (i.e., refrigerators, television, cars)?
What would be easiest to give up?
What would be the hardest?
- Authors often put their own worldview into their writing.
How might Miranda’s mother’s view of the president relate to Susan Pfeffer’s personal views?
How might her views of religion be reflected in this book?
Which character might be most like this author?
- How were Megan and her faith portrayed?
Was it an accurate portrait of Christians? Explain.
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