Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, written almost fifty years ago, is considered a classic nuclear holocaust story. The novel is set in the 1950s during the cold war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, also known as the Soviet Union, which consisted of the country now known as Russia and numerous smaller, neighboring countries). In writing the novel, Frank used his knowledge of war and the potential consequences of a nuclear fallout, which he gained from years of working as a war correspondent and also as a special consultant on issues of war for President Franklin Roosevelt. The story remains relevant today, as the threat of nuclear devastation of the world continues to be a possibility.
At the novel's outset, Randy Bragg has recently failed to win the state senate election in the small town of Fort Repose, Florida, because he is considered too liberal. Randy is nice to the black people in town, and the majority of the white town folk are worried about the recent talk of civil rights. However, when the bombs start falling and scattering radioactivity and thugs begin using force to take whatever they want, Randy is the only person in town who is willing to reinstate order.
Alas, Babylon is a story of death and the horrors of living through a disaster worse than any the United States has ever faced. Yet it is also a story of love and compassion. Over the course of the novel, Frank strips his characters down to the foundation of basic humanity. Money loses its worth. Communications to distant places are all but completely cut off. And the old social systems are obliterated. Factors like social status, age, and skin color no longer hold the same distinctions that they once did. Because of the disaster, people are forced to come together and face the challenge of survival.
Pat Frank is the pen name of Harry Hart Frank, who was born on May 5, 1908, in Chicago. He was the son of Harry Hart Frank, Sr., and Doris Cohen Frank. Frank attended the University of Florida for two years but dropped out to become a journalist. His first job as a reporter was for the Jacksonville, Florida Journal.
In 1929, Frank moved to New York so that he could work for the New York Journal. Next he moved to Washington, D.C., where he become involved in politics and government, reporting for the Washington Herald. Later, he was sent abroad to head the Washington Bureau of the Overseas News Agency. His work at the agency led to his gaining a position, in 1941, as assistant chief of the Office of War Information. Frank's work at this office, plus his three years as a war correspondent in Italy, Austria, and Turkey, won him a War Department Award in 1945.
After World War II, Frank retired from his journalistic and governmental positions and devoted his remaining years to writing. The topic of his nonfiction books was nuclear technology and weaponry, about which he was considered an expert. His novels include Mr. Adam (1946), a story about the only surviving fertile man left on the planet after an explosion in a bomb factory, and An Affair of State (1948), which explores the foibles of the U.S. government. In 1952, he published Hold Back the Night, based on the war in Korea. This was followed by Forbidden Area (1956), about the possibility of nuclear war; his fifth novel, Alas, Babylon (1959), takes this concept to fruition. It is for Alas, Babylon that Frank is best known.
From 1960 until his death on October 12, 1964, Frank wrote mostly nonfiction, including a book called How to Survive the H-Bomb, and Why (1962). Frank died in Atlantic Beach, Florida.
Alas, Babylon begins on a normal day in the small southern town of Fort Repose, Florida. Florence Wechek is on her way to work at the local Western Union telegraph station. Shortly after arriving, Florence calls Randy Bragg (the main character) to read an unusual telegram from Randy's brother, Mark. In the telegram, Mark, a U.S. Air Force colonel, tells Randy to meet him in Orlando the next day, as he has very important news to relate to his brother. The very end of the telegram reads, "Alas, Babylon." From these two closing words, Randy knows that disaster is pending, as the phrase was a boyhood code of theirs. The brothers had often heard this biblical phrase from Preacher Henry, the black minister of a local church. The preacher used this phrase to predict disasters he believed were imminent.
Mark is involved with Air Force intelligence. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife, Helen, and their two children, Ben Franklin and a daughter named Peyton. In Omaha, the Air Force maintains a defense and communications center that is located in a deep hole in the earth, fortified against attack. When Randy meets Mark the next day, he learns that Mark is sending his wife and children to Florida to stay with Randy. Military intelligence is expecting a nuclear attack from Russia.
When Randy gets back to Fort Repose, he buys huge amounts of food and supplies. Some of the townspeople start talking about him, leaving Randy unsure as to how much he should tell them. He is concerned about causing a panic, but he does decide to tell the Henrys, an African American family living nearby, about the expected attack. Lib McGovern, who has become a close friend of Randy's, comes to visit, as does Dr. Dan Gunn, and Randy also tells both of them about the threat.
The story moves from Florida to the air over a U.S. aircraft carrier ship in the Mediterranean. A pilot, Ensign James "Peewee" Cobb, is surveying an enemy plane from his own jet. Cobb tries to get a fix on it. When he succeeds, he fires a missile, but the missile does not follow the path intended but rather falls to the ground and hits the Syrian port of Latakia, setting off a series of explosions. In the next scene, Mark is in Omaha. He and his fellow officers hear the news and begin initial procedures in preparation for retaliation by Russia.
Everyone at Randy's house is suddenly awakened. Randy rushes outside and sees a light to the west, bright as the sun. Then there are more bomb blasts. Peyton, who was staring toward one of the bomb explosions, is temporarily blinded. In a short period of time, other blasts are felt. Randy drives to town to find Dr. Gunn for Peyton. Chaos has erupted in town. The doctor promises to come to Randy's house as soon as he can. While in town, Randy learns that all communications with the outside world have been destroyed. A rush of people attempt to withdraw their money from the bank. Stores are quickly emptied, and gas stations have run out of fuel. Soon the electricity is cut off.
Back home, Randy has a small battery-operated radio. On it he hears a message from Mrs. Josephine Vandruuker-Brown, who announces that she has been named the acting chief executive of the United States. She also announces that Washington, D.C., has been destroyed, along with most of the executive, legislative, and judicial members.
After the doctor treats Peyton's eyes, he and Randy discuss Fort Repose's radiation threat. They conclude that they might be safe, as the town enjoys a strong ocean breeze blowing in from the east that might keep radiation levels low. Later, Randy and Helen visit Admiral Sam Hazzard, who has a shortwave radio. He tells them that he has not heard any announcements coming out of Omaha since the bombs were dropped. He implies that there is little chance that Mark could have survived.
The next day, the dire conditions the people are under have begun to sink in, and people are panicking. They break into stores and loot everything they can find, including all of the medicine from the pharmacy. Randy has cash but realizes that soon money is not going to be worth anything, so he does not mind paying ridiculously high prices for the remaining staples, like salt, that the grocer was saving. While in town, Randy finds the doctor at his clinic. A local policeman is lying at the doctor's feet, having been shot dead. Thugs have broken into the clinic and demanded all the doctor's drugs.
That night, Randy insists that the doctor stay with them so as to be protected. After dinner, they hear a broadcast that enumerates all the U.S. cities that have been destroyed. The whole state of Florida has been classified as a contaminated zone—no one can leave without going through an official health check to determine their level of radioactivity.
In the following days, Randy, the McGoverns, and the Henrys, along with Florence and Dr. Gunn, pool their strengths and skills to ensure the group's survival. They develop a plumbing system that takes advantage of an old artesian well. They catch fish and hunt armadillos and quail. The Henrys share their chickens and eggs. And the librarian, Alice, teaches them how to identify edible mushrooms and wild plants.
Randy hears a bulletin on the radio that suggests that people in the military reserves who are not on active duty should organize their towns and enforce the laws. Because Randy was an officer in the reserves, he takes this message as his cue to administer authority in town. This comes none too soon, as one night the doctor goes missing. He has been beaten by some thugs, and his car and remaining supplies are gone. Randy goes to the admiral to get advice on how to catch the men who attacked the doctor. The admiral, before he retired, had been involved in war intelligence and battle tactics. Randy and the admiral work through several plans. Lib suggests they go to Rita, an old girlfriend of Randy's. Rita is the biggest trader in town and has stored huge supplies of everything she could get her hands on. They know that Rita has an old grocery delivery truck and some gasoline. They will use the truck to help them catch the criminals.
Randy and his men drill holes in the back of the truck through which they can see and shoot their guns. The plan is for Malachai Henry to drive, while Randy, the admiral, and Bill McGovern ride in the back. A couple of days later, they see the thugs following them in a car. In a matter of minutes, Randy and his men attack. All the outlaws are killed except for one. Randy temporarily spares theman's life so that he can hang him and use him as an example of what will happen to anyone else who breaks the law. Unfortunately, Malachai was also shot, and he dies.
Near the story's end, Randy and Lib are getting married. There is also a suggestion that Helen and the doctor are in love. In November, about one year after the bombs fell, a U.S. military helicopter circles Randy's house. When it lands, Colonel Paul Hunt, whom Randy met in Orlando when he went there to meet his brother, steps out. Hart tells Randy about all the U.S. cities that have been destroyed, and he tells Helen that there is no chance that her husband, Mark, could have survived. Hart also tells them that they are establishing a headquarters at Patrick Air Force Base on the east coast of Florida. He says that they are all invited to start a new community there, but no one in Randy's group wants to go. Just before Hart leaves, Randy asks him who won the war. The colonel tells Randy that the United States did but that it really does not matter, referring to the fact that much of the world has been destroyed.
Ben Franklin Bragg
Ben Franklin is the son of Mark and Helen Bragg. He is thirteen years old when he is first introduced. Ben is forthcoming in his conversations with adults. His parents have been very honest and direct with him, which pleasantly surprises his uncle Randy when Ben goes to live in Florida.
Helen is Mark's wife and Ben Franklin and Peyton's mother. Normally, Helen has a clear head, strength in the midst of calamity, and a willingness to do more than her share of the work. Helen becomes weakened, however, in the middle of this story when she must face the realization that her husband has died in the nuclear explosion in Omaha. She transfers her feelings for her husband to Randy. She tries to insist that Randy has become Mark. This is only a temporary madness that passes. Later, Helen falls in love with Dr. Gunn, but she insists on waiting for an official declaration of her husband's death before she gives in to her love.
Mark is Helen's husband and Randy's older brother. Mark is a high-ranking officer in the Air Force, specializing in military intelligence. Suspecting that a war is pending, he insists that his wife and children leave Omaha and move in with Randy in Florida. Mark is involved in only two scenes in the story, but his influence is felt through his brother and his wife throughout the remaining chapters.
Peyton is the ten-year-old daughter of Mark and Helen Bragg. She is often lost in the shadow of her older brother, Ben Franklin. This is due not only to the fact that she is younger but also to her being a girl.
Randy is the main character of the story. He is the younger brother of Mark. Randy is in his thirties and has never been married. At the beginning of the story, Randy does not know what to do with himself. Lib tells him he should move to a bigger city and find something he wants to do. She likes Randy but is afraid the town is killing him psychologically. Randy has started to drink too much.
Once Randy is forced to face the nuclear destruction and fight for his survival, he turns a corner. He stops drinking and begins caring about the people around him. He takes charge when no one else is willing to do so. As Randy's image of himself improves and he finds ways to keep the people put in his charge alive, his feeling of pride helps him accept Lib's love. Although Colonel Hart gives Randy a chance to leave Fort Repose and return to the twentieth century by living in a better-structured community on the coast, Randy decides to stay right where he is. Something about having to figure out how to do the most basic things, like frontier people had to do, brings Randy alive. He loves the challenges and the sense of accomplishment he gets from facing them.
Ensign James "Peewee" Cobb
Cobb is the young Air Force pilot who chases an enemy spy plane away from a U.S. military ship. In the process of trying to shoot the spy plane down, Cobb accidentally fires a missile that makes impact on a Syrian harbor. That event is the excuse that Russia needs to start the nuclear war.
Alice is the local librarian and Florence's good friend. Before the disaster the library was mostly ignored, but after all communications are shut down, people flock to the library to help pass the time away and to learn about survival. Alice moves in with Florence for company. She becomes involved with Randy's extended family by helping to teach Ben Franklin, Peyton, and Caleb.
Dr. Dan Gunn
Dr. Dan Gunn is Fort Repose's only surviving doctor. Gunn is a close friend of Randy's, and like his friend, Gunn helps to keep the town functioning after the bombs have been dropped. He suffers a brutal beating from some thugs who want his car and his drugs. Gunn has limited knowledge about radioactivity and knows specific procedures that must be followed to deal with it. After moving in with Randy's family, Dr. Gunn falls in love with Helen.
Colonel Paul Hart
Hart appears only briefly in the story. At the end, Hart lands in Fort Repose in a helicopter, the first outsider to come to the town after the devastation. He tells Randy that Patrick Air Force Base is untouched and invites Randy and his family to move there if they want to.
Admiral Sam Hazzard
Hazzard was once a leader in the U.S. Navy. Besides fighting naval battles, Hazzard was also involved in military intelligence. His background helps Randy and the others understand what might be going on in the world despite their lack of direct contact with officials. Hazzard has a shortwave radio and because of his military background is able to decipher the military code used in communications. Hazzard also helps Randy make a plan for snaring the criminals who beat up the doctor.
Reverend Clarence Henry
Clarence Henry, most often referred to as the Preacher, is the patriarch of the Henry family. He is a wise old man, especially when it comes to surviving off the land. He is especially good at fishing. It was the Preacher who used the phrase "Alas, Babylon" during his Sunday sermons. Whenever the Preacher mentioned the sins of the common person, he would then warn his congregation that if these sins were perpetuated, cities would be destroyed, as stated in the Bible. Though they did not attend church, Randy and Mark, as young boys, used to sit outside the Preacher's church and listen to his sermons. This is how they picked up the phrase, which then became their secret code for impending trouble.
Hannah is the Preacher's wife. She only appears in the scene of her son Malachai's death.
Malachai Henry is about Randy's age. He is a quiet man who goes out of his way to help those around him. When it comes time to catch the men who have beaten up the doctor, Malachai volunteers to take on the driver's position. He successfully plays the role of a submissive black man, luring the thugs into believing he is an easy target. This costs Malachai his life.
Missouri is Two Tone's wife. She is the cleaning woman in the neighborhood, a good-natured woman who respects Randy and his family.
Two Tone Henry
Two Tone, so named because of discolored patches on his otherwise dark face, is the Preacher's oldest son and Missouri's husband. Two Tone comes up with a plan for raising sugar cane, which he will later mix with some corn to create a homemade liquor. After the devastation, a good strong drink is better than money in the bartering system that is established in the town.
Rita is an old girlfriend of Randy's. She is described as beautiful and seductive. Having been poor most of her life, Rita collects superfluous material objects that the townspeople give away almost for free after the bombings. Randy turns to Rita when looking for a vehicle and some gasoline in order to catch the criminals who are stalking the community.
Bill is Lib's father and Lavinia's husband. Bill is not very happy in his retirement, but when Randy tells him, after the bombs have fallen, that the group needs his mechanical skills, Bill snaps back to life. Prior to this, he was feeling suicidal. He is a rather grouchy old man until he is put to use. Bill even grabs a gun when necessary and goes on the hunt for the thugs who beat up the doctor.
Elizabeth "Lib" McGovern
Elizabeth, or Lib, is the adult daughter of Bill and Lavinia. She has fallen in love with Randy. She encourages Randy to leave Fort Repose so that he might find some kind of job that excites him. She thinks that Fort Repose is too small for him. She promises to follow him once he becomes established, but then the war comes. Lib turns out to be very resourceful in finding food in unlikely places, like at the tops of tall palm trees that she climbs. Lib comments, at least once, that she does not feel that the men really know her or respect her ideas. This is the late 1950s, when women were supposed to take on rather submissive roles. However, Lib comes up with the idea for how the men can entrap the criminals who beat up Dr. Gunn. Like Peyton, who also feels neglected and disregarded by the men, Lib proves that she has a brain and can think up creative solutions for the good of the group.
Lavinia's role is very minor. She is a sickly woman and succumbs to death because of diabetes fairly soon after the war has started.
Patricia, who has been the head of Health, Education and Welfare, is suddenly thrust into the role of acting chief executive of the United States. This is due to the total destruction of Washington, D.C., and all the other major heads of government. She makes announcements over the shortwave radio about what has happened to the United States.
Florence is a neighbor of Randy's who works at the local Western Union station. In the beginning of the story, she does not like Randy. She thinks he is lazy and spoiled. She also believes that he has been spying on her with his binoculars. Florence is in her forties and has never been married. She is a bit nosey and likes to spread gossip. After the bombs fall, she becomes almost heroic in her commitment to keeping the cable office open in case communications are restored. She also pitches in by using her creative problem solving to help make ends meet and by providing goods for her neighbors.
Although the superpowers of the 1950s, the Soviet Union and the United States, thankfully realized that a nuclear war could not be won by either side because of the resultant destruction, Frank's novel Alas, Babylon imagines what would have happened if those two countries had decided to play out such a nuclear scene. In Frank's book, the war begins with a somewhat innocent accident—an errant missile hitting a Soviet-protected country. That event is all that is needed in the tense situation; war quickly ensues.
Frank's book was written after fifty years of intense wars. Between the early 1900s and 1959, when the novel was published, three major wars took place: World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Afterward, another war was also looming—the war in Vietnam. Thus, the possibility of a nuclear holocaust was not too hard to envision. Frank uses the imminent threat of such a war to promote peace. He demonstrates through his novel the concept that the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union fully understood: no one wins a nuclear war. Both countries in this novel are devastated by war. Frank claims that because of the radiation caused by the bombs, the affected areas might not be inhabitable for another thousand years. As the characters fight for their survival, they realize that civilization has been forced to retreat back into the Dark Ages, living without most of the conveniences and inventions that were created throughout the years. They are set back to primitive times, with their main focus in life being on finding food and keeping warm. Can people survive war? Yes, this story points out. But at what cost? And in what condition?
Breakdown of Society
Societies are formed to protect inhabitants and provide services. In Frank's novel, the author shows how quickly a society can break down under extreme pressure caused by a holocaust. Many basic things are affected, like communications and infrastructure. Electricity is shut off, so no broadcasts are available through radio or television. No mail arrives, and no mail or telegrams can be sent out. With the loss of electricity comes the loss of refrigeration, a convenient means of keeping food and medicine fresh. Money, the currency with which almost all transactions are conducted, comes to hold little or no worth, such that those who count on money as their safeguard against hunger or for self-protection can no longer rely on it. Food, which once was so readily available at the neighborhood grocery store, is no longer there and will not be brought by trucks or trains from other parts of the state or country. The only food that residents can count on is the food they catch or raise. This increases competition, as hungry residents vie for whatever their surroundings give them. Those who lack the skills needed to stave off their hunger must learn to beg or steal.
As these shortages or absences of supplies and resources become more and more familiar, law and order fall apart. There are no longer any universal or enforced codes by which to live, as all aspects of life have been rearranged or redefined. Those people who lack or choose to ignore morals will take from those around them who are weaker than they are. As such, any possessor of a gun may be motivated to create his or her own rules. Randy owns a gun and, rather than acting immorally, demonstrates the courage not only to bring his society back to a functional level but also to demand that others see him as the moral authority. Ben Franklin does the same when he asserts with a gun that the animals on the farm are meant for humans, not for the dog that has gone wild. Both Ben Franklin and Randy attempt to restructure society by creating new rules.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Fort Repose is a fictional city in Florida. However, the author provides geographical clues to where the city might have existed. Create a map of Florida that demarcates the devastation that occurs in this story, and place Fort Repose where you think it might have been located. Research the Air Force bases that are mentioned and find out why these places were targeted. Present your findings to your class.
- Reread Alas, Babylon, paying particular attention to the issues of race that are an undercurrent in the novel. How are the Henrys depicted? Are they treated similarly to the white characters? What roles do the Henrys play? Do you notice any stereotypes in how they are described? What are the relationships between the whites and the blacks in this story? Jot down notes as you are reading, and then lead a discussion group in your class. Be prepared to keep the discussion on track and to provide stimulating questions should the discussion die out.
- Recreate of the town of Fort Repose on a map or as a three-dimensional model. Identify the following places: all the houses on River Road, including the houses of Florence, Randy, the Henrys, and the McGoverns; Marines Park; Rita's house; and the major businesses in town (grocery store, doctor's clinic, the bank, the mortuary, the library, and the Western Union station). Many of these places are described in the novel. If you cannot find precise locations in the text, use your imagination.
- Read Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Road, another novel about catastrophe. Then compare this novel with Frank's Alas, Babylon. Provide your class with a synopsis of McCarthy's novel, then give a presentation in which you explain and analyze the two books' similarities and differences. Some questions you may choose to address in your presentation include: What are the overall tones of the two novels? Do either of them offer hope? How do the authors' writing styles compare? Would you recommend these books to your classmates? Why or why not?
The main emphasis in this story is on survival. Randy, thanks to his brother's warning that a huge disaster is about to happen, is a step ahead of everyone else. He thus thinks ahead about what the impending disaster will mean. Though he has money, he knows it will be worth very little after supplies become scarce. He also knows too that some supplies will be worth more than
others. He figures out which ones will be most necessary to help him and his family to survive and buys them before there is a rush on the stores.
As the story progresses, Randy uses the knowledge that pulling family and friends together will give them a better chance of surviving. His friends and neighbors all have special gifts through which they can provide needed materials or intelligence. Randy and most of the others have creative intelligence, so when they have no means of obtaining necessary objects, they are clever enough to improvise. Some of the people in his group also have a keen understanding of what nature can supply them, and they research books to help them locate necessities such as salt and proteins in unusual places and forms. The author demonstrates through this story that adaptability and cooperation are traits that are needed for survival under pressure.
Through all the carnage in this novel and the ongoing fight to live, there is an undercurrent of love. This is first exposed as Mark and Randy meet in Orlando. Mark suspects that there is a good chance he will not make it through a nuclear war, as he works in one of the enemy's main targets. Mark expresses to Randy how much he loves his wife, Helen, and asks Randy to take good care of his family, knowing that he may never see them again. Mark sacrifices his life out of love for his country and his family.
In the midst of this catastrophe in her life, Helen, emotionally overburdened, thinks she has fallen in love with Randy. This occurs because she transfers her feelings of love for her presumed-dead husband to Randy. Randy, who has respect and love for both Helen and his brother, does not take advantage of Helen's weakened spirit. He senses that something is wrong and tries to make Helen understand that he is not his brother. Helen eventually comes back to her senses. Later, she develops a friendship with Dr. Gunn but refuses to allow herself to fall in love with him because she does not officially know if her husband is dead. She honors her love for her husband by controlling her emotions this time.
The main love story is that between Randy and Lib McGovern. Theirs is also a strong love, as well as a very rational one. In the beginning of the story, Lib shows that she is willing to sacrifice her need to be with Randy when she tells him to get out of Fort Repose because she thinks the small town is hurting him psychologically. Then, after the bombing, Lib and Randy work as a team to protect their families and the neighbors who live close by. They share their love for one another with those who are in need around them. Not until others are taken care of do they take the time to enjoy the privacy of their feelings for one another.
Transitions in Point of View
Frank uses an omniscient third-person narrator in Alas, Babylon. The author switches back and forth from one scenario to another, from one character to another, telling the story from different points of view. For example, Frank begins his novel with the narrator telling the story from Florence Wechek's point of view. The narrator recounts not only Florence's actions but also her feelings, suspicions, and memories. This use of an omniscient narrator—one who is privileged to know characters' inner dialogues—is not unusual; indeed, many authors use this technique. However, the manner in which Frank transitions from one character to another is fairly unique.
The first transition occurs between Florence and Randy in the early stages of the first chapter. Florence has noticed Randy sitting on his front porch, holding a pair of binoculars and looking Florence's way. She then leaves to go to work. There is a space break in the narration (an extra few lines of space between paragraphs), and then the story picks up from Randy's point of view. The first line narrated through Randy's perspective tells readers that Randy sees Florence's car drive by the front porch of his house. Thus, the author connects the two different points of view by linking them. First, the narrator is with Florence, looking at Randy, and then the narrator is with Randy watching Florence.
In the second chapter, the narrator observes two characters together: Florence and Alice are having lunch. Most of the text in this section is the dialogue between the two friends, but when there is a reflection or thought, the narrator relates only Florence's inner dialogue. A little later on, after another space break, the narrator leaves Florence and follows Alice back to her place of work, the library. At this point the narrator is now privy only to Alice's thoughts.
Another example of such a relational transition in point of view occurs at the end of the third chapter. The narrator relates that at 7 p.m., Randy is listening to the news on the radio before falling asleep for the night. Then there is a space break. The next paragraph begins with a statement of the corresponding time in the Mediterranean (where a U.S. Navy ship is watching a spy plane), thus connecting the two different points of view, from one side of the world to the other.
To provide a deeper understanding of the setting of Fort Repose, Florida, as well as to give a fuller account of the lives and the relationships of some of the characters, the author uses flashbacks to the time when Fort Repose was first established by Randy's ancestor, Lieutenant Randolph Rowzee Peyton. This storyline signifies Randy's deep roots in the town, helping to introduce Randy and his situation. By providing the historical flashbacks, the author gives Randy's predicament more meaning. One of the reasons for Randy's political defeat is his friendship and support of the African American population in the town. In the traditions of the South, Randy is considered a traitor to his heritage for his support of civil rights for black people. Randy's support of the Henrys, his black neighbors, becomes more interesting when readers learn that the Henrys arrived in Fort Repose at the same time as Randy's ancestors; the Henrys were Randy's family's slaves.
Another benefit of this storyline told through historic flashbacks is that it helps to explain why, at the end of the story, Randy does not want to leave Fort Repose, despite the hardships he and his family are experiencing. Although Colonel Hart offers his family the opportunity to start a new life on the east coast of Florida, near Patrick Air Force Base, Randy wants to stay in his ancestral home.
The southern setting influences the story in several ways. First, as the novel opens, Randy has been defeated in his bid for the Florida State Senate. One of the reasons for his defeat was his friendship and support of the African American population in the town. Randy believed in integration, which the federal government was supporting. Nevertheless, there in Florida, deep in the South, the white voters distanced themselves from Randy for his so-called radical stance. In the South in the 1950s, before integration, there was a very strict divide between whites and blacks, not only in school but also in most aspects of public life.
One other condition of the southern setting is that survival through the winter is challenging but not as devastating as if the story had been set in a northern location like New England. In central Florida, a fireplace is enough to keep the chill of a winter night at bay. For most of the winter, cool weather crops can be grown, and wild plants can still be harvested, whereas in the North, all plant life is dormant. Because the author lived in Florida, the state might have been a natural choice for a setting rather than a choice designed to make the characters' challenges easier. Nonetheless, the decision to set the story in the South affected both the plot of the story and the tone.
The Creation, Use, and Effects of the Nuclear Bomb
When the U.S. government learned that Nazi Germany was working on the creation of a nuclear bomb, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a focused and expedited project run by U.S. scientists to do the same. Thus the Manhattan Project was established.
For the creation of the bomb, a labor-intensive process to extract the isotope uranium-235 was needed. To this end, the government supported the construction of a secret laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. One of the principal participants at this lab was Harold Urey, of Columbia University, who helped devise the extraction process through which the isotope would be obtained. Working with him was Ernest Lawrence, from the University of California at Berkeley. Another scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, became the head of a lab at another site, in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer was in charge of testing the first nuclear explosion. This first test of an atomic bomb occurred on July 16, 1945.
The atomic bomb was dropped twice by the United States as a weapon of war. On August 6, 1945, one bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, causing the deaths of approximately 66,000 people; another 69,000 people were immediately injured. Physical damage to the area stretched out some three miles, with everything in sight burning. Three days later, the United States dropped another atomic bomb, on Nagasaki, Japan. This time, 39,000 people died instantly, and over 25,000 others were immediately injured. The next day, Japan surrendered.
The Cold War and the Nuclear Arms Race
A cold war (referring to a type of conflicted state relationship without actual warlike confrontation) developed between the United States and the U.S.S.R. after World War II. Ironically, the United States and the Soviet Union had fought as allies during World War II. Although some might imagine that the two nations had been friendly toward one another during that war, this was not the case. The two countries came together because they had a common enemy—Nazi Germany. The Germans had invaded the Soviet Union and Europe. And after Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the United States was pulled into the war, to fight Japan in the Pacific and Germany on the European continent.
Although the Soviet Union supported the Allied troops, the United States did not trust the Soviet Union. This lack of trust continued after the war. The U.S. government was concerned that the Soviets were attempting to spread Communism throughout the world, including in the United States. Although labor unions slowly but successfully grew during the 1950s and 1960s in the United States under the influence of communist theory, the Communist Party did not thrive. Communism is a socioecomonic system in which the public owns the means of production and wealth is shared equally, as opposed to a capitalist system, in which private individuals own the means of production and are free to accumulate wealth. As the United States is a capitalist system, philosophically the two countries were at odds.
After the United States dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II, the Soviet Union feared the military power of the United States. The Soviet Union thus began to develop a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction of their own. This amounted to an arms race, as both countries continued to top the other in mass and in power in terms of weaponry. Some use the date of the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 by the Soviet Union and the United States to mark the end of the cold war. On that date, Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan met to sign a historic agreement by which they both agreed to eliminate certain nuclear and conventional missiles.
Life in the 1950s
Many younger readers can have only a limited understanding of how much life has changed in the United States over the past fifty or so years; many facts of daily life were much different in the 1950s. On the economic side, incomes and expenses were scaled dramatically lower. A family could buy an average house for about twelve thousand dollars. To go to the movies, an adult ticket cost one dollar. At the grocery store, a loaf of regular bread cost twenty cents. A gallon of gas cost a quarter.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: What becomes known as the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union threatens the peace and safety of the world, as both countries vie for military dominance.
Today: After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, several countries join forces in what is called the War on Terrorism, a unified effort to stop further terrorist attacks.
- 1950s: Huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons exist in both the Soviet Union and the United States.
Today: Although their supplies are small, countries such as North Korea develop their nuclear plants and weapons capabilities.
- 1950s: Segregation in the South leads African Americans to engage in civil disobedience in attempts to secure their civil rights.
Today: Although segregation was outlawed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial divides still exist in neighborhoods and schools in both the North and the South.
It was in the 1950s that the first Barbie doll was produced. Two new states were added to the Union that decade: Alaska in 1958 and Hawaii the following year. The Soviet Union outpaced the United States in space exploration by launching the first satellite to circle the earth in 1957. Jack Kilbyk, in 1959, received a patent for the design of the first microchip. The 1950s also brought the birth of rock and roll and the rising
Frank's Alas, Babylon is considered by critics and many readers to be a classic atomic holocaust novel. Whenever this genre is mentioned, Frank's novel is one of about four or five that are named as must-reads. Alas, Babylon is also often considered the author's best work of fiction.
Though Frank's novel carries this reputation, some critics have found fault with the book. The general sentiment among reviewers is that Alas, Babylon provides a detailed glimpse into what might happen after a nuclear bomb is dropped and how people might survive the aftermath. However, Orville Prescott remarks in his 1959 review for the New York Times that Frank demonstrates "minimum competence in characterization and no ability whatever to convey the emotional atmosphere of a time of supreme crisis." Prescott does admit that "Frank commands a crisp, readable style and has an inventive imagination for practical details and small incidents."
A similar sentiment is expressed by David Dempsey, writing for the New York Times BookReview, also in 1959. Dempsey refers to Frank's novel as a "manual for survival," which he says "might just be worth keeping around." Dempsey's criticism is that even though Frank's book is "provocative," it "never comes to grips with the more important question of just what kind of guilt his modern Babylonians are paying for." This is a reference to the biblical phrase that is used as the title, alluding to its use by Preacher Henry to warn his parishioners to live a good life without sin. In other words, if the biblical Babylon was destroyed for the breaking of moral rules, then what sins were committed to lead to the nuclear devastation in the novel?
In a more recent review as well, written by Viv Holmes for the publication Countryside and Small Stock Journal in 2003, the emphasis is on Alas, Babylon being more like a survival guide than a novel. Holmes states, "To me this is a resource book and will always be in my home library." Holmes does call the book "enlightening," but she uses this word in reference to learning what the characters in Frank's novel have to do to survive, not in reference to Frank's literary style.
Hart is a freelance writer and author of literary essays and several books. In this essay, she explores the roles of women as depicted by Pat Frank in Alas, Babylon.
Given that Frank's novel Alas, Babylon was published before the second wave of feminism (roughly in the 1960s and 1970s), the female characters in his novel are somewhat dated. For the most part women are cast as stereotypes, such as the gossip, the homemaker, the maid, the seductress, the good wife, the cook, and the grieving mother. They are incapable of creative thoughts; they are frail; they have no leadership qualities. The stereotypes are not always blatant, as some are colorfully and carefully concealed. Nonetheless, they are there. And if one takes the time to look for them, they are quite easy to see.
The story begins with Florence Wechek, who is labeled a gossip within the first four lines of the novel. The narrator later adjusts this pronouncement slightly by stating that Florence is prudent about choosing the topics of her gossip. She censors herself and does not tell anything scandalous. However, the narrator then dismissively excuses Florence's inclination to spread stories: she gossips, the narrator suggests, because she is an unmarried woman—a spinster—and an old one at that. She has nothing better to do with her time but gossip, it is implied, because she has no life. Randy, the main character, on the other hand, is also unmarried, but there are no derogatory references to his single status. He drinks too much, but that is merely bad for his health. Randy is not a menace to his community, at least not like Florence; he is only a menace to himself.
Besides being a gossip, Florence also has a wild imagination, the narrator continues. Her imagination is not wild in a good sense that suggests a positive and creative intelligence. Rather, Florence's imagination is used to think up stupid fantasies. The stupid fantasy that Florence has that morning is that Randy is trying to catch a Peeping-Tom glimpse of Florence as she is dressing. Randy is actually bird-watching, readers learn later, which confirms the impression that Florence is a fool.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Frank's Hold Back the Night (1952) provides readers with a detailed account of the Korean War. The story follows a group of U.S. Marines who refuse to give up on their assignment in a difficult war.
- In 1985, Larry Niven published Footfall, which was nominated for the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year and remains a science fiction favorite. The story is about an alien invasion. Unlike some other fictional alien characters, Niven's aliens are actually very strange; they are not just altered human beings.
- Stephen King's The Stand (1978) is an apocalyptic horror story, with the main action revolving around the consequences of a killer flu being accidentally released from a military compound. The virus wipes out almost the entire population of the world. The people who are left assemble into two distinct groups, the good versus the evil.
- In 1987, Robert McCammon published his Swan Song, which went on to become the co-winner of that year's Bram Stoker Award for best horror novel. Often compared to King's The Stand, the catastrophe in this novel is nuclear fallout. Interesting characters fight for their survival against powerful enemies.
- Cormac McCarthy's The Road, published in 2006, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning postapocalyptic novel. In sparse prose, McCarthy tells the story of a father and son who work their way across America to the southern part of the East Coast, searching for tidbits of food, scraps of clothing, and anything else to help keep them alive.
- In 2005 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a study called Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, written by Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar. The authors list and define various weapons that readers may have heard mentioned in news stories. This reference book also discusses the governments around the world that may have developed and stockpiled these weapons.
The author does give Florence one positive attribute. This occurs after the bomb has destroyed all communications to the outside world. Florence is dutiful to an extreme then, riding her bike down unpoliced roads in her commitment to keep the cable lines secure should a message finally come through. She also makes socks. Everyone is running out of socks, and she saves their poor feet. Yet this act places Florence back into the domestic arena, the stereotypical realm of duty for women.
Another woman who is cast in a domestic role is Missouri, the black cleaning woman. According to the narrator, she loves cleaning. She loves it so much that she wraps rags around her feet and dances as she waxes the floor. The narrator also refers to her as the maid. She cleans her own home, Randy's, and the McGoverns'.
Missouri is also the stereotypical long-suffering woman. She has a no-good husband, Two Tone, who is usually drunk. She also suffers through Mrs. Lavinia McGovern, who is a racist. Mrs. McGovern drives Missouri crazy, following her around the McGovern house while wearing white gloves and wiping her fingers across everything that Missouri has touched. She wants to make sure that Missouri has caught every particle of dust. Indeed, Mrs. McGovern is another stereotypical female. She and Missouri sit on opposite ends of a spectrum. Missouri has been downtrodden all her life, living in the segregated South; Mrs. McGovern is a rich, spoiled, white woman from the North who has nothing better to do than intimidate and belittle Missouri.
Mrs. McGovern's daughter, Lib (which is supposedly a shortened version of her formal name, which is Elizabeth, though it could be a shortened version of the word liberated) is nothing like her mother. But even Lib is a rather stiff, cardboard figure of a woman. Randy, who has fallen in love with Lib, tends to discount Lib's strengths: "She bewildered him. She was brash, unpredictable, and sometimes uncomfortably outspoken." In other words, Lib has an intelligence and a mind of her own. Randy is threatened by her, so he turns her assets into something negative.
The narrator then describes Lib in terms of her physicality. This is where the narrator describes Lib's true assets as both Randy and Lib see them. She is not a great beauty, the narrator (or Randy) thinks, but she does have a great pair of legs, it is reported. The author even has Lib define herself in terms of what parts of her body lure men and what parts do not. And when Lib tells Randy something serious, when she is not being playful with him like a child, he sees her mouth as being "drawn into a taut, colorless line"—something that sounds unattractive.
At one point in the story, when Randy is scheming with Admiral Hazzard about how to catch the men who beat up the doctor, Lib wants to assert herself, but she resists. She states, to herself, that the admiral makes her feel like a member of the kitchen staff bringing in the coffee and serving the men, as if that is all she is good for. Then she tells herself that these thoughts of hers are "silly," and she curls up on a couch and tries to make herself "inconspicuous." Soon after comes the line "Lib started to speak but decided it would be unwise." Readers have to wonder where these feelings of inferiority and hesitation are coming from. If this is a liberated, outspoken woman, would she be having these types of thoughts? Or do these comments come from a male author who wants to keep his female characters in their place—a quiet, subdued place?
In another scene with Lib, the author places her on the top of a palm tree. Lib has discovered that the tree bears an edible fruit, and she rejoices over her ingenuity. What response does she receive from the men? She is told not to go up the tree again because she might fall and hurt herself. On one hand, there is a good reason to be concerned: they have few medical supplies or services, so a broken leg could be a lot more complicated than it would be under normal conditions. However, none of the women tell the men not to go out with their guns to capture or kill the criminals who have been ravaging the town. In this particular incident, Randy talks to Lib as if she is a child.
In another incident that is telling, Ben Franklin, Helen and Mark's son, is encouraged to take a gun and keep guard behind the barn, waiting to catch whoever has been stealing the Henrys' pigs. Ben is only thirteen, not quite a man. When he kills the wild dog who has been stealing their food, everyone calls him a hero. Still a child, Ben cries once he realizes he has killed the dog; yet he proudly takes the compliments. His sister, Peyton, on the other hand, also wants to win the praise of her elders. She goes to Preacher Henry, the most successful fisherman in the area, and asks him why the fish are not biting. The Preacher helps Peyton figure out the problem: the river water is too hot along the shoreline, so the fish have gone out to the deeper water to keep cool. Peyton thanks the Preacher and decides to go out in the boat alone to the middle of the river, where the fish are biting. In the process, she catches three huge fish, but she also gets caught in the river's current. It takes her a long time to row home, and her family grows worried about her. Her mother, instead of praising her wisdom and skill, spanks her and sends her to bed. In essence, Peyton's mother signals that she is a bad girl. Nothing is said about the bounty she brought home with her, the fish that no one else was able to catch. There is no hero worship for Peyton. One has to wonder if this would have been the case if she were a boy.
The women in Frank's novel play out traditional female roles as nurturers and caretakers. They cut the men's hair, cook, and wash and mend the men's clothes. They soften the men by giving them attention. They strengthen the men with their love. They bite their tongues when they are around the men but let their thoughts run free when they are in one another's company. Maybe these were just the roles that women were expected to take on in the 1950s, before the liberation marches and demands for equality. Maybe the female characters just seem like stereotypical images of women because modern readers are encountering them from another century, one that has been influenced by a renewed feminism. But there is another possibility: Frank may have simply created his female characters as models of how he saw women—docile, submissive, quiet, and dumb human beings.
Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on Alas, Babylon, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Foertsch uses Alas, Babylon to explore the role of African American and ethnic characters in literature.
… The title of Frank's novel, Alas, Babylon is not only a quote from Revelations but from the sermons of a black minister, Preacher Henry, overheard by the story's white protagonist, Randy Bragg, and his brother Mark as boys. Listening outside (instead, of course, of occupying a pew within) Preacher's ramshackle church, the boys gain anyway from his apocalyptic perspective, trading the expression "Alas, Babylon" between them throughout childhood whenever a situation seemed hopeless. When Randy receives a telegram from Mark, now a SAC officer in Omaha, with the words "Alas, Babylon," he understands that nuclear war is imminent and makes the preparations that will eventually save his extended family (including Preacher and his family, who are neighbors) from nuclear destruction. Thus it is Preacher Henry's "long view"—his eye to the end of time, even should this occur tomorrow—that enables Randy to the heroism he eventually achieves. Randy's devotion to the Henrys, and his enlightening experience in the integrated ranks in Korea, instilled in him the respect for black Americans that doomed his pro-"Constitution" campaign for the state legislature months earlier. Meanwhile, he is independently wealthy and better off mulling over his options in the Florida countryside rather than losing his life in the state capitol of Jacksonville, demolished along with the other U.S. major cities, at the hour of attack. We recall that this same set of circumstances—the main white figure fortuitously sidelined on bomb day due to enmeshments with the serving class—opened [Judith] Merril's Shadow on the Hearth.
In the days following "The Day," Randy integrates his commune of neighbors and relatives, despite the misgivings and outright hostilities of the more segregationist among them. Randy's future father-in-law, who began the story by referring to African Americans as "dinges" and must function as assistant to Malachi Henry (Preacher's son)—"mechanic second class"—when the company's few autos need repairing, has his consciousness raised in the process. Despite the emotional trauma and new limitations in diet, Randy admits to himself, after a few weeks of laboring alongside his black neighbors, that "he was leaner and harder, and truthfully, felt better than before The Day." Many months into their ordeal, the old social divides—and the city services that supported them—have dissolved. In town, Randy observes that "[t]here were two drinking fountains in Marines Park, one marked ‘White Only’ and the other ‘Colored Only.’ Since neither worked, the signs were meaningless." The meaninglessness of segregated drinking facilities, revealed to the town only in the rocket-red glare of nuclear Armageddon, enables the vision of "Carleton Hawes … vice president of the county White Citizens Council" taking a drink from "a Negro's jug." While the social order has not declined to such a degree that Randy actually knows the name and club affiliations of the generous "Negro," it is the case that the novel's "vision" of the post-nuclear world—to the degree that it is a vision, a fantasy come true—has its radical edge: recall that, where [Philip] Wylie envisioned a racially, politically homogenous suburban new city in the wake of nuclear annihilation, Frank's post-bomb utopia features blacks and whites drinking from the same jug in an environment too naturally and politically broken down to sustain the old mores and "civilities."
In a dramatic later episode, Malachi drives a decoy truck that enables Randy and several other white characters to dispatch a band of deadly highwaymen. Seeing past the glimmer of hope represented by the interracial jug-sharing downtown, Malachi recognizes the persistence of racist sentiments on the highway and takes the wheel so as to function as an irresistible target to those they hope to capture. Indeed, he has read his adversaries like a book and is fatally wounded in the takedown; I will read the significance of his passing momentarily but note here that his death also results in the incapacitation of the last racist element in the narrative frame, furthering progress toward the interracial utopia Frank seems to be reaching for. We must note, however, that both Malachi and especially Preacher, despite their potentially subversive features, serve ultimately as servants, supporting the interests of white masters. Acknowledging the somewhat enlightened qualities of Malachi, the Henrys otherwise abound in racial stereotypes, with Preacher the classic tom, his daughter (and Randy's maid) Missouri the eternal mammy, and her disaffected husband Two-Tone figuring as "the coon"—identified by Bogle (7-8) as another recurrent type in popular narrative.
The proximity of the Henry homestead to the many whites who also own property along the river may not seem to be a function of the family's former attachment to an antebellum plantation. However, their very integration in the neighborhood already serves those around them, especially tolerant whites like the retired Admiral Hazzard, who are pleased to snap up waterfront property at reduced rates—the only drawback being [their black neighbors]. While the novel roundly condemns the racist sentiments of the white realtor who phrases the situation thus, the Admiral does capitalize on his investment at the Henrys' surely under-compensated expense:
Sam Hazzard found that the Henrys were extraordinarily convenient neighbors. Malachi tended the grounds and helped design and build the dock. Two-Tone, when in the mood—broke and sober—worked in the grove. The Henry women cleaned, and did his laundry. Preacher Henry was the Admiral's private fishing guide, which meant that the Admiral consistently caught more and bigger bass than anyone on the Timucuan, and possibly all of Central Florida.
Note the ways in which the Henrys' various labors are all for improving the leisure and "convenience" of the Admiral's post-retirement life. Especially significant is the arrangement by which Preacher's talents as a master fisherman are transferred to the Admiral to secure his catch (and his fame as a fisherman) instead of accruing in any way to Preacher himself. Throughout the story, the Henrys will donate their skills and expertise—without complaint and without credit—to the cause of securing white well-being.
Following the blast, Randy approaches Malachi and announces matter-of-factly: "We don't have water in our house. I want to take up some pipe out of the grove and hook it on to the artesian system." Though he adopts a confident, possessive tone, Randy has already admitted to white family members that he has no idea how to tap into the artesian water system that will save their lives, but that luckily "Malachi will know how to do it." Later in the story, Preacher shares more of his knowledge of fishing to enable young, white, female Peyton Bragg to save the day by finding the fish that will bite, never receiving credit for the role he has played. In this unofficial servant capacity, he is only doing his job.
As their essential contribution to post-nuclear survival is persistently unacknowledged by the narrative's white viewpoint, so the black figures are depicted—as Veda was in [Judith] Merril's novel—as oblivious and in some ways impervious to (outside of) the bomb's threat and the seriousness of the response it requires. Missouri, whom Randy calls by the childish name Mizoo, cleans the Bragg household, "shuffling" as she goes, fulfilling various stereotypes with her jollity, size, and dialect speech. Early in the story, she puts on the phonograph and polishes the floor by "dancing" with rags tied to her feet, her light manner as inappropriate to her 11th-hour situation as was Gladys's ignorance of major headlines. When she informs Randy that "nerves" have caused her to lose weight, it is not nuclear news-reporting that induces her anxiety but the demanding standards of another employer, Randy's future mother-in-law. Because Randy and Malachi were boyhood friends (even though Malachi now addresses Randy as "sir" and regards him as a boss), Randy shares withMalachiMark's vital information regarding the bomb's approach. Malachi, however, is utterly unfazed: "Mister Randy, I've thought about it a lot, but there's not a doggone thing we can do about it. We just have to sit here and wait for it." As opposed to the frantic but effective preparations engaged in by Randy throughout the novel's early chapters, Malachi is content to wait, sitting-duck style, for the bombs to strike, endangering his family by his fatalist (and "no-count") inclination to simply take it easy. Before divulging his secret to Malachi, Randy had wrestled with the prospect of doing so: unlike his white neighbors whom he has no intention of enlightening but whom he assumes will fend well for themselves following attack, the Henrys are a "special problem"—beloved caretakers and helpless "wards" who will surely perish without his support. When Malachi rejects Randy's invitation to swing into panicky action alongside him, it now seems that he and his family deserve any bad luck that befalls them. Malachi has explained his indifference by reminding his boss that "we [Henrys] don't need much" anyway: their lack of most modern amenities, and total acceptance of this lack, suit them better than their white neighbors to any return to the "Dark Ages" that may come their way.
Indeed, preparedness would have been wasted energy for the Henry family, given their remarkably "isolated" situation. In a startling scene, Randy approaches the Henry farm immediately following the blasts and is transported back in time—to a pre-bomb, indeed prelapsarian, scene of rural contentment:
Fifty yards up the slope, Preacher Henry and Balaam [the mule] solemnly disked the land, moving silently and evenly, as if they perfectly understood each other. Caleb [Missouri's son] lay flat on his belly on the end of the dock, peering into the shadowed waters behind a piling, jigging a worm for bream. Two-Tone sat on the screened porch, rocking languidly and lifting a can of beer to his lips. From the kitchen came a woman's deep, rich voice, singing a spiritual. That would be Missouri, washing the dishes. Hot, black smoke from burning pine knots issued from both brick chimneys. It seemed a peaceful home, in time of peace….
Randy walked over toward the back door and the Henrys converged on him, their faces apprehensive … "Everything okay here?" [Randy asked]
"Just like always" [Malachi replied].
As if their ignorance of and indifference to world affairs had miraculously preserved them against even the bomb's physical effects, the Henrys occupy an extra-temporal pocket-paradise of order and ease yet at the expense of their membership in history—in humanity—at this momentous moment. Randy's approach—the approach of awareness and action in the figure of the white master—elicits their "apprehension," indicating that the Henrys must now rely on Randy to reintroduce them to the passage of time itself—to the awful realities of their present and future. While Randy's yanking the Henrys into the present is a dubious favor to be sure, the Henrys' ability to help Randy and his white relatives adjust to "the past"—the primitive mode of living that is the only option in the devastated post-atomic environment—is a priceless gift that is barely acknowledged, let alone adequately compensated.
One ethnic character—of the many surveyed in all of these works—stands out for her refusal to fill the servant's role and for the consequences she pays for it. As her Otherness stems from ethnicity (and class) instead of the more "alien" qualities of "race," Rita Hernandez, a Minorcan siren from the rundown Pistolville section of town, is closer to Randy both before the bomb (they are lovers in the story's pre-history) and after. As opposed to the Henrys, who serenely disregard the bomb's approach, and despite Randy's attempt to relegate her to his own pre-bomb adolescence by insisting that "Rita is part of the past," Rita, like Randy, is keenly aware of the unfolding future and has been stockpiling wares against the day. Yet Rita's accumulation of resaleable hard goods contrasts to Randy's pre-bomb hoarding in the name of protecting his family (especially his young niece and nephew) and is thus demonized by the narrative. With the advent of the waspy, marriageable Lib McGovern, Randy has cut Rita loose. When she refuses to resign her role … by pressing to legitimize their relationship, she is implicitly accused of not knowing her place, and the narrative turns against her. Her aggressive, unkempt brother Pete reinforces our dislike of Rita and all her Pistolville clan. According to Pete, "Rita says this war's going to level people as well as cities"; Frank celebrated this interracial groundbreaking in the instance of white and black sharing the same water jug, but Rita's attempt to level the playing field, which threatens Randy's respectable union with Lib, is castigated.
Because of the large store of supplies Rita has maintained against the thieving gangs of Pistolville, Randy reencounters her during a goods exchange and is recaptivated by her seductive ways. Her crude assessment of Randy's current living situation … snaps him out of his spell, and he harshly turns against her. Fittingly, the diamond ring she shows off to entice Randy—as both wealthy and spoken-for—is "hot" property, stolen from a jewelry store in south Florida that had been radiated by an atomic blast. Dan Gunn, the town doctor who accompanies Randy to the meeting diagnoses radiation poisoning: "Her finger was marred by a dark, almost black circle, as if the ring were tarnished brass, or its inside sooty. But the ring was a clean bright white gold." Concluding their visit, Dan observes to Randy that the Hernandez's stolen goods are "[i]mpregnated with fallout … Suicide." Cruelly abandoned by Randy in his white, male, middle-class superiority, Rita is forced to make symbolic marriage with the bomb, impregnated not with a child but a monster: radiation poisoning. Her refusal to know her place … is the sin for which her terrifying dose of radiation exposure is supposedly just reward. As opposed to the impervious, oblivious Henry family, Rita has both a firmer grasp of the bomb's social significance and a normal ("human") physical reaction to the bomb's contaminating effects.
As the Henrys were a "special problem" for Randy in the beginning of the story, solved by their exploitative incorporation into the Bragg commune's early days of survival, they along with Rita and her family become the narrative's own special problem as it draws to its triumphant close. Malachi and Rita's nasty brother Pete are the two minority characters who die in the story (Malachi heroically, saving white lives, Pete despicably, swathed in hot gold), yet all characters of color are pushed to the invisible margins of the story in its final pages. Although Randy trades for honey as a treat for Ben Franklin and Peyton (the story's two white children) as well as Missouri's son Caleb, later in the story, there is only typhoid vaccine enough for Peyton and Ben Franklin. The unvoiced presumption perhaps is that Caleb is hearty enough to withstand the infections threatening more delicate, middle-class systems. Following the Henrys' initial heavy infusion of folk wisdom into the Bragg collective, it becomes self-sustaining, and there is less and less for a large cast of supporting characters to do. Again, their last service of any value is to simply fade away; neither the Henrys nor Rita make any appearance in the story's final episode—when a surveillance/decontamination patrol arrives by helicopter from the outside and invites the family (and its white neighbors—"the librarian and the telegraph gal") to vacate to a safer zone. When Randy, on behalf of his familial collective, rejects the pilot's offer, he completes our understanding that the group has already reached, has created for itself, its zone of utopic safety, contentment, and "unmitigated hope" (Hager 323). Again, the Henrys' role at this point in the story is all but nonexistent; they are not referred to during the offer of evacuation nor consulted before the offer is turned down, and their role from then on seems to be one of complaisant invisibility.
Hal Hager observes that as he wrote, Frank was as caught up in headlines that told of school desegregation as those that warned of atomic war (322); while the large role granted African-American and other minority characters in this novel corroborates that argument, it is the case that for Frank, and for white authors and policy- makers in general, negroes were a "problem," like the bomb, to be solved as expeditiously as possible. For white America, the answer in both cases was flight to the protected suburb, even as it knew that the solution was provisional at best. Racial integration was as looming a prospect as radioactive contamination, and in only the most farfetched geographic fantasies … would one problem (the bomb) conveniently take care of the other (the Negroes trapped in their ground-zero inner cities). To discern African Americans as "being" a problem in the nuclear-imminent landscape, of course, ignores the reality of their "having" a problem—the same one facing white America (and the world as a whole) at that moment—and the agency with which they would execute their own antinuclear protest, pre-nuclear preparedness and, in the worst case, post-nuclear survival. While the novels read in this discussion each add dimension to their nuclear scenarios by including characters of various ethnicities, races, and social classes, all tend toward the assumptions and conclusions dependent upon black servitude discerned by film and cultural theorists to have been part of a white-authored narrative since at least the end of the Civil War.
Source: Jacqueline Foertsch, "‘Extraordinarily Convenient Neighbors’: African-American Characters in White-Authored Post-Atomic Novels," in Journal of ModernLiterature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Summer 2007, pp. 122-38.
Dempsey, David, "H-Bomb's Aftermath," Review of Alas, Babylon in New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1959, p. 43.
Frank, Pat, Alas, Babylon, HarperPerennial, 2005.
Holmes, Viv, Review of Alas, Babylon, in Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Vol. 87, No. 6, November/December 2003, p. 93.
Kaledin, Eugenia, Daily Life in the United States, 1940-1959: Shifting Worlds, Greenwood Press, 2000.
Lawson, Steven F., Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle, University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Painter, David, The Cold War: An International History, Routledge, 1999.
"Pat Frank Dead: Wrote ‘Mr. Adam,’" in New YorkTimes, October 13, 1964, p. 43.
"Pat (Harry Hart) Frank," in St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th ed., St. James Press, 1996.
Prescott, Orville, "Books of the Times," Review of Alas, Babylon, in New York Times, March 20, 1959, p. 29.
Young, William H., The 1950s, Greenwood Press, 2004.
Gaddis, John Lewis, The Cold War: A New History, Penguin, 2005.
This volume presents a detailed history of the cold war, including how it began, what it signaled, who it involved, what happened, and how it ended. One of the best-known historians on this topic, Gaddis presents an in-depth account in an easy-to-read style.
Gannon, Michael, Florida: A Short History, University Press of Florida, 2003.
Professor Gannon provides a brief yet comprehensive tour through the history of Florida. Gannon looks at topical issues still relevant today, such as the environment, race relations, weather catastrophes, wildlife, and other social issues.
Kelly, Cynthia, ed., The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2007.
This collection presents firsthand accounts of and perspectives on the creation of the atomic bomb, as told by scientists, military personnel, and academics. Some of the accounts are historical; others are reflections from a contemporary point of view.
Wiseman, John, SAS Survival Handbook: How to Survive in the Wild, in Any Climate, on Land or at Sea, HarperResource, 2004.
For readers who might be interested in learning basic skills useful in an emergency, Wiseman has written a book that contains strategies for surviving in any type of stressful situation. This book could be read merely for the fascination of the details provided or for practical knowledge to be used in rugged circumstances.