“Ten months have passed since I’ve last seen the sun,” begins 16-year-old Alex Halprin, narrator of Mike Mullin’s “Ashen Winter.” The book is the second entry of a dystopian saga trilogy set in the upper Midwest. North America is suffering the devastating aftermath of a supervolcano explosion at Yellowstone. Worldwide, populations are starving from the loss of grains and food stuffs no longer available from our destroyed farming culture. Florida is deemed a rare “green zone;” Texas has seceded; Mexico has closed its borders to the refugees shuffling south from the decimated West; Chinese troops, under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid, have taken possession of California, Oregon and Washington state.
Survivors from the “red zone” west of the Mississippi have mostly divided into three social strata-vicious, cannibalizing, predatory gangs, problematic governmental entities and small communities sharing resources in an often futile attempt to preserve human dignity. A few rare individuals try life as independent farmers or traders but they are too readily victimized. Spoiler alert, if anyone ever mentions “long pork” for supper, run!
When the explosion occurs in the first novel, “Ashfall,” Alex is home alone in Iowa for the weekend while his parents and sister visit family in Illinois. His home is hit and set afire by fallout debris and, under near white-out conditions created by ash fall, Alex sets out to cross-country ski the 140 odd miles into Illinois to join them.
A challenging traveling partner, Darla, joins him and the two teens complete a horrific journey of potentially lethal incidences. They finally stumble into his uncle’s farm, where the situation is dire but stable and relatively safe. Unfortunately, his parents left five weeks earlier, backtracking west to find Alex.
As “Ashen Winter” implies, the climate has now shifted into permanent winter. Trucks can drive directly across the frozen Mississippi river. Most buildings have collapsed under the weight of ash mixed with rain and snow and cropland is buried under the hardened mix plus an additional four feet of snow. FEMA relief is close to nonexistent; they can barely manage to keep a few roads plowed open. They have contracted management of refugees and distribution of survival aid to a mercenary military group that fully exploits the disaster. Clean clothing or a warm place to sleep is a luxury. A packet of kale seeds, a sandwich baggie of wheat or corn meal, a box of cartridges or a bottle of Tylenol equal huge wealth.
Despite daunting circumstances Alex decides to re-enter Iowa, hunting his parents. Readers of “Ashfall” will find it believable that Alex would make this attempt.
Mullin has drawn Alex with strength of character, martial arts training and a rapidly growing set of skills that make the storyline plausible. His teammate, Darla, brings a mechanical aptitude and an instinctual drive to kill threats - a necessary evil Alex never fully embraces.
“Ashen Winter” rapidly becomes a frenzied running of the gauntlet. Similar to Alex’ favorite video game, “World of Warcraft,” decisions must be made instantaneously, intuitively and mistakes register appalling results.
Graphic loss of body fluids, limbs, organs and life occur non-stop. Early on, Alex loses Darla in an ambush but believes she is alive somewhere. Committed to rescuing her, he gains two new traveling allies. The astute observations of one of them, an autistic teen, Ben, provides some desperately needed comic relief.
Occasionally serendipity comes into play, as when FEMA operatives capture the trio, and Alex is thrust into a refugee camp only to come face to face with his parents. He and his mother argue outrageously over what to do next but Alex adamantly refuses to abandon Darla. Alex’s mother is furious that, in post-apocalyptic times, it’s no longer effective to parent her son by simply ordering him about.
“Ashen Winter” finishes at a thrilling pace. Again, Mullin is very resourceful with how Alex gains both transportation and useful information in an environment barren of cell phones, internet connectivity and similar media avenues. Of particular note in these novels is the essential nature of the Midwestern gun culture. People with old shotguns and handguns lying about survive much longer than those who don’t have them.
When Alex and party roll into a final shootout over Darla, a deliberate propane explosion covers their escape. Knowing how to create and manage violence is mandatory in Mullin’s fierce, desolate landscape,
no resolution awaits them upon their return to Illinois.
The end of “Ashen Winter” is determinedly set up to sustain relentless action in the final entry of the trilogy, “Sunrise,” due out this year. Mullin’s novels prompt readers to consider three crucial questions: What does it take to survive when the grid falls? How does survival conflict with preserving humanity? Who would I want with me?
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer and a Manhattan resident.