In his most recent book, Kansas native Steven Church navigates the end of the world.
From the tornadoes that tear through the fields of Kansas to the threat of nuclear war, it is easy to feel the fear of impending doom on every page of Church’s work. In one story, “Cornflake Fallout,” he introduces us to the filming of The Day After, a movie that shows a “factional” (according to the film’s promotional team) portrayal of life after a nuclear war.
As he watches his hometown of Lawrence, Kan., transform into an apocalyptic world, his early fear of destruction at the hands of atomic bomb manifests in the form of spray-painted cornflake ashes and taxidermy cattle covered in radiation sores.
Church takes us past his fear of the end, telling of his father’s fear of nuclear war, and still further back to before the bombs even existed. He transports us back to the Civil War, when a Missouri man named William Quantrill brought fear and murder to the slave-free city of Lawrence. He thinks about the fears of his children, who are growing up with the War on Terror, and what things they might fear instead of the atomic bomb.
Amid his visions of the destruction of the world, Church allows us to see when he has to survive the destruction in his own life. We see his dad’s job loss (which results in his family moving), his parents’ divorce, and his younger brother’s death. We follow as he travels to Greensburg, Kansas after an F5 tornado hit the town in 2007, where he recalls tornadoes that destroyed the places of his past: his family’s Colorado cabin, his grandparent’s house, the house in Alvamar.
Yet throughout the book, there is a glimmering hope at the end of the world: survival.
In the first of a series of essays, Church presents his own version of The Day After where the story is told from the boy Danny’s perspective: what it means to be a young boy from the Midwest preparing for the end of the world, and what it means to survive that end.
We see Church survive the nuclear fallout as a mutant in the essay “The Mutants Shall Inherit,” a variation of Thundarr the Barbarian, a television variation of Conan the Barbarian), riding his trusty wolf-ant into battle.
In another essay, titled “Sunday School,” a young Church holds his copy of The Official Boy Scout Handbook as he navigates his way through a post-apocalyptic world, declaring, “Be gone, foul demons! For I am Boy Scout, Man-Child, a Servant of the Light!”
But even if there is no hope for survival, even if we all grow up with this fear that death and destruction occur one way or another, whether it is by atomic bomb, tornado, flood, or flying monkeys, it is the inevitability of death that shapes us all (or at least we hope).
“To grow up with the belief that death and destruction are imminent breeds a certain amount of passion for the present moment,” he writes. “It tends to make you appreciate the small things in life…it makes us — I want to argue, to believe, to hope — better husbands, wives, parents, writers, artists, and musicians.”
Emily Cruse is a graduate student in English at Kansas State University.