Book Review: The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson

This was one of my favorite books when I was younger, so I thought I’d re-read it. The book was not as good as I remember it, mostly because of the outdated writing style, but I enjoyed the plot and remember why I loved it so much as a kid.

The premise: the world has just experienced its worst plague ever, and all adults are killed off—only those approximately twelve and under are spared. Lisa, the protagonist, is determined to build up civilization again rather than live like a frightened animal. She and her brother, and some kids from the neighborhood, first try to reinforce their homes in the Chicago suburbs, but after too many gang attacks, they move to the high school, which becomes their city.

Lisa thrives by using her brain when others resort to animalistic or mob mentalities. For instance, when she arrives at a grocery store, she notes that the items most appealing to children are gone—soda, candy—but the items children don’t like—canned asparagus and spinach—are still there. She takes these items because they are more healthy. Later, she and her brother are healthy while other kids, who have survived on just candy, are sick. She also thinks through the situation to find a warehouse in the city filled with over a year’s worth of food–most kids only thought to go after grocery stores. When she still lived in her neighborhood, she organized the children into a militia. They created alarm systems and booby traps to help fight the gangs. She’s also the first one to realize that kids should learn how to drive cars and find gasoline for generators. Throughout the entire novel, Lisa emphasizes that they can only persevere through hard work. As a kid, I loved her toughness, her work ethic, and her use of rationality to solve problems.

I learned, only when searching for a copy, that O.T. Nelson wrote the book to illustrate Ayn Rand’s principles of objectivism in a simple way that kids could understand. As a kid, I didn’t pick up on the fact that there was a “lesson” to be learned. I’ll admit, though, I am a fan of Rand’s philosophy, so the book must have naturally resonated with me as a kid.

Now, as a “grown up” and a writer, I picked up on some of the writing issues in the book. Some of the “lessons” were told through a series of bedtime stories Lisa told her younger brother to keep him confident. Others, though, were told directly rather than shown, giving it the “feel” of a lesson rather than an illustration. The book was a quick and easy read—I read it in two sittings—and could have benefited from added details to illustrate elements of Rand’s philosophy, such as pride in ownership and happiness from accomplishment. There were times when Lisa would say something Randish, and it seemed to come out of the blue. Sometimes Lisa even notes that most kids don’t understand her philosophy yet, but she just moves on from there. At one point, the littlest kids are all grumpy and whining. Lisa points out that they’re grumpy because they all have to share everything—they don’t have their own possessions, and they also are being sheltered and not asked to work for anything. While I like and agree with the idea behind this, it was not illustrated in the book, so someone with whom this idea does not naturally resonate might be left scratching his head. The author even shows how someone who simply follows Rand’s philosophy is seen as unlikeable in society. This is true, but the issue isn’t really addressed much beyond that point.

Part of the issue here is that the book was first published in 1975. Books from earlier eras are different stylistically. A lot more was told rather than shown, and books tended to be shorter. (Harry Potter helped to break that rule). This meant less could be illustrated. The idea for the novel is fun—I remember imagining how I would survive if all the adults died of a plague—and if rewritten today, I think it would be written in a more enjoyable style. I would have liked to see more details that might be more acceptable to add today, such as what the kids did when they encountered dead bodies (it’s a glossed-over subject, and it seems mostly they avoided going into houses where they thought there were dead people, or it was explained that most adults went to hospitals to die, but still, I would have like to see at least one dead body to see what the kids had to deal with. Again, books like The Hunger Games, written more recently, seem to have pushed the envelope on what is acceptable to write in a story meant for children.

Still, the novel contains a strong female protagonist who offers a useful philosophy for living life: fear (of failure, of others, etc.) leads one to act irrationally. Having confidence and seeing each obstacle as a challenge to solve rationally can be “fun” because it leads to accomplishments and ownership (and, thus, pride and satisfaction).