The Road, written by Cormac McCarthy.
I was downright scared to read this book.
I knew about the storyline. I knew it would be intense. I knew about "the baby." But I was willing to take on the emotional challenge, hoping for an experience that would provide me, the reader, with a story to contemplate and perhaps even a story that might change my personal outlook on life. It's a lot to ask for in a novel, I know.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic United States. A man and his young son struggle for survival amidst the destruction (it's never made clear exactly what happened - nuclear war, most likely). The land and sky are all grey and covered with ash. Trees are all dead and there are no animals (the man ponders that cows must now be extinct). The one and only goal of our characters is survival, and in this world it's a struggle. The man is leading the pair to the coast, although they have no way of knowing if things will get better once (or if) they get to their destination.
We never learn the name of the man, or his son, or their ages. Only a few descriptions are given about their physical appearance. I think the author did this to perhaps generalize them, and maybe even use them as symbolic figures. This comes in to play especially at the end (I won't give any spoilers, I promise).
The man and the boy are the "good guys" in this barren world. But there are a couple of situations in which the actions of the father make you question what exactly is a good guy in this post-apocalyptic world? Is it ensuring the survival of yourself and your son, or is it helping people in need when the situation presents itself? The man always chooses the former, while the son gravitates towards the latter. One thing that must be considered when thinking about such a topic is the extreme measures of the "bad guys." The man is being pretty wise by running away from the few encounters they have with the bad guys.....is it heroic to run and survive, while leaving others in peril? Or is it cowardly? A plot-driven novel would have some very different outcomes than this one, but McCarthy holds fast to his character's one objective: to survive. Interestingly, the boy (a symbol of a new generation) makes different choices to get to the same objective, as seen at the end of the story. I liked the generational symbolism here (although I do feel the ending was a bit "convenient").
McCarthy's writing is poetic at times, minimal at others. The dialog between the father and son was a bit repetitive ("are you ok?" "Yeah, I'm ok). The father always asks the boy if he's talking to him, but there is never a situation in the story in which the boy is purposely silent. Also, I had trouble pinpointing the boy's age - sometimes he acted or spoke as if he were maybe age 8, but later in the story it's mentioned that he's at the age where he would normally be separating himself from his father - maybe 12 or 13? Considering the childhood (or lack thereof) that he's had, I can hardly blame the boy for being rather quiet - or for making some stupid mistakes such as forgetting to turn the valve off on the portable stove (thus rendering it useless). I'd be an absolute wreck in his world.
Or would I? The Road takes a hard look at two normal people, fighting for survival in a harsh world, relying on one another for everything. The man and the boy are symbols for what anyone would do in their situation: fight for survival. Let's just hope we don't find ourselves in their same tattered shoes.
(Edited to add link)