Having things is something, but not everything.
Earning the values for your life is more than just something, it is everything.
The Plot: This book starts with your classic post-apocalyptic survival premise: at some point before the story begins, a viral plague has killed off everyone over the age of 12. In the ruins of suburban Chicago, 10 year old Lisa is struggling to forage for rapidly dwindling non-perishables for herself and her younger brother, Todd, and shelter themselves from the roaming street gangs that have begun to spring up in the surrounding neighborhood.
The author doesn’t waste any time in establishing Lisa’s goals, by which I mean TURNING THIS BOOK INTO A BIZARRE POLITICAL SCREED. Lisa is forward thinker. Her to-do list is basically:
1. Find cans of soup
2. Raise a regimented, armed militia of the neighborhood children
3. Reject sharing as moral slavery; embrace selfishness as freedom
With these goals in mind, Lisa has no patience for mushy-headed socialists, such as her friend Jill, who has taken in a dozen orphaned children that she struggles to provide for; or for pacifists such as Craig, who only wants to learn enough about agriculture to get a local farm up and running again, instead of shooting and/or bludgeoning other children trying to find enough to eat.
Lisa becomes obsessed with the concepts of “logic” and “strategy”, which she explains to her younger brother through many tedious fables about a King who gives proprietary advice to his subjects on how to achieve happiness in exchange for their loyalty, loot, and sworn secrecy of said advice. Still, ruling over only your younger brother with an iron fist isn’t much fun, so Lisa realizes that she’ll need to manipulate the other kids into agreeing to form a militia to fortify and protect their turf.
Now, clearly, since Lisa is a Nietzschean Übermädchen, she is destined to be the only child in town to both figure out how to drive a car, and think of collecting food and supplies from a supermarket’s warehouse, which she calls only The Secret Place, Old Man In The Cave-style. This means far more than a chance for her and her friends to avoid death by starvation- it will provide the leverage she needs to get her militia started:
“You have to promise to keep my idea a secret- an absolute secret. You can make use of the secret place to get the supplies you need for your family if you help me on my trips. I want to be the one who decides about sharing it with the other kids when I’m sure they’ll absolutely support the militia.”
Though Lisa has a tough time convincing the other children, through a combination of bribing them with popcorn and Kool Aid and poorly articulated arguments (“It’s our chance for real fun in life- when we know we’ve earned our survival”), she gets her militia.
The children of Grand Street work to barricade the block, booby-trap their houses and train attack dogs. Hippie Craig, being one of the oldest surviving boys of the neighborhood, is reluctantly promoted to General in Lisa’s army; after collecting a supply of guns and ammunition from the local police station, he leads all children over the age of 5 in daily target practice.
When the fortifications are attacked by the gang from nearby Chidester Street, under the leadership of Lisa’s sworn enemy Tom Logan, the Grand Street kids put up a good fight. Unfortunately, the Chidester gang is no slouch, and carries out a second raid while they’re off celebrating the establishment of Grandville (“WARNING: Private Property/ Travel at your own risk”). Lisa and Todd’s house is burned to the ground, requiring them to move in with Jill.
Lisa becomes moody and contemplative, until she has a philosophical brainstorm while watching Jill’s “orphans” bicker over the scarce toys:
“I’ve been watching your kids for days, Jill. Just watching and thinking about them. They do too much sharing and it isn’t working at all. It’s nice to share things if you want to, but it’s bad, I think, to force people to share or be nice. Those are things a person must decide for himself. Otherwise it’s no good.”
GAWD, JILL! Are you a Communist or something?
Lisa knows that what the children need is a strong leader who will tell them what to do, so she sets a plan in motion to move the Children of Grand Street into the abandoned high school, which will be fortified like a castle, complete with trucks and heavy machinery from the city’s garages. She assigns each of the children tasks, without telling them what the final goal will be, “paying” them with new toys from the warehouse. Finally, under the cover of night, she moves them through a secret tunnel into the new fortress, and explaining how things are going to work from now on:
“This is my city, Glenbard. We can all live here in safety, but we can’t make one single mistake. You must follow every rule or you’ll be asked to leave. If you don’t like the rules, then are free to move back to your homes. You are not forced to stay here.”
There is token dissent from Commie Jill, but Lisa smacks her down:
“Lisa, why do you keep calling it your city? Saying it is your property.”
“Because it is! I thought I told everyone that on the very first day.”
“But we’ve all helped to build it haven’t we? The kids are starting to call you selfish. They want to feel that they own it too.”
“If the city belonged to no one in particular, we’d form a group that would vote on things. And that would be bad.”
“Bad? How so, Lisa? Voting is a good thing. It’s fair if everyone has a chance to help decide important things.”
“No, Jill. I know you like to share things, but it just doesn’t work out the way you’d like it to. Call me selfish all you like, but I don’t want to own anybody. I don’t want anyone to own me, and that’s what a sharing group wants to do.”
Lisa is kept busy with the demands of being dictator-for-life of Glenbard, including assigning children to “family units” of four and creating system of defense from the roof down, complete with sentries “dressed in black and wearing black masks” and drums of boiling oil to be tipped over the side (!!!)
But, what Lisa is really interested in is the next phase of her plan- Capitalism! Announcing that she “wants to rent parts of the fortress to other kids,” she’s soon taking applications for… tenants? Serfs? Although applicants are subjected to a battery of questions, including loyalty tests, “most of the children admired her and liked her strong way of doing things.”
See? People want a strong leader to tell them what to do! Also Lisa has been catching up on her reading:
Then one day she made a lucky discovery- a single book with words and ideas she could understand because they applied to her life. They made sense to her. She never spoke about the book to anyone; it was her private treasure. She kept it safe behind a panel in the tower chamber.
She was finding that it wasn’t easy running a city, but the special book helped her.
So… Atlas Shrugged? The Wealth of Nations? Mein Kampf?
We never find out, but there a few battles with the ever-growing Chidester gang, and Tom Logan is pretty pissed off about getting a face full of boiling oil. During an attempted raid Lisa is shot and presumed dead, so the Glenbard throws opens its doors to Tom Logan, who assumes control of the city.
In reality, Lisa’s injury is minor, and Hippie Craig and Jill spirit her away to an abandoned farm and perform surgery to remove the bullet. While she recovers, Lisa plans to take back her city, while Hippie Craig has had enough and announces he’s not going to leave the farm.
When Lisa is recovered enough to move, she and her Generals take to the highway in their trucks in a show of military might designed to draw in other neighborhoods to their cause to retake Glenbard, but Lisa finds no candidates with the Right Stuff. Returning to the farm, they are greeted by “a stream of pilgrims carrying their life’s belongings- and food and guns- to find a leader who they now knew was alive.”
Lisa parades back into Glenbard for a final confrontation with Tom Logan, who is finding out that being dictator-for-life is harder than it looks.
“You’re free, Tom,” she said. “Go away and take your army with you.”
Well, done and done then.
While Glenbard celebrates Lisa’s return, she locks herself in her tower chamber with her Special Book and plans for the battles ahead.
Aside from the philosophizing that garners some serious side-eye, the plot also has some major holes in it. Like the fact that even during a plague the police department probably keeps its armory locked up. Or that learning to drive a dump truck with a standard transmission is really hard! And the timeline is kind of fuzzy, since in the opening chapter Lisa is recalling she had been in her Social Studies class just a week earlier, but the next day all of the adults have been dead for months.
Sign It Was Written In 1975 Department:
“She thought about how the older children had hated the grown-up generation. Now they, and what they had called ‘The Establishment,’ were gone. Ten years old in November, and now she was part of ‘The Establishment.’”
Sequel Department: While Nelson has been quoted as having a sequel in the works over the years, The Girl Who Owned A City remains his only published work to date.