The Eleventh Plague
“Mr. Hirsch delivers an intense and thought-provoking glimpse of one possible dystopian future. And he provides something that similar stories don’t always offer: hope and a chance for redemption. This stand-alone novel is a pleasant change from the trilogy format of so many others in which one must read all of the books to glean the entire story. It’s enjoyable to have it all told in one novel.”
Jeff Hirsch’s debut novel, The Eleventh Plague, is a commendable addition to the dystopian genre so popular among today’s teen readers.
Allegedly coined by British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, dystopia describes a time and place filled with decay, misery, fear, and oppression. In these dystopian futures, civilization has crumbled, leaving behind a bleak landscape filled with ruined remnants that only hint of the freedom and prosperity that make up the world we know. Human hubris and greed are the usual causes for such dystopias.
And so it is with The Eleventh Plague. Jeff Hirsch creates an all too possible future in which war has destroyed most of America’s infrastructure and a deadly strain of influenza has killed two-thirds of its population. Fifteen-year-old Stephen Quinn, his father and grandfather are among the survivors. They trudge through rusting theme parks, devastated malls and empty towns enduring severe privation and brutal weather as they salvage anything that might be worth bartering for food and supplies at regional trade gatherings.
Steve’s grandfather, who is being buried as the book opens, wields a powerful, domineering influence that leaves a legacy of distrust that shaping Steve’s beliefs and actions. Shortly after the burial, Steve and his father encounter slavers, the “brutal scum” who capture people and sell them to those few groups with enough money to buy slaves. Steve and his father evade the slavers, but Steve’s father is critically injured during the escape.
When the slavers disappear and a group of friendly people discover Steve and his now unconscious father, it appears that Steve’s luck has changed. The group is from Settler’s Landing, a hidden community that seems too good to be true. As in the rest of the country, electricity and running water are distant memories, but the settlement has intact houses, real families, a school, crops and even leisure time activities such as baseball and barbeques. Steve is welcomed to the town, but a few residents believe he and his father are spies from Fort Leonard, a less prosperous settlement a short distance away.
Powered by his grandfather’s strong opinions, Steve at first distrusts the new life being spread out before him like an unfamiliar feast. As the town’s doctor cares for Steve’s father, he befriends some of the townspeople and attends school for the first time in his life. There he meets Jenny, a Chinese girl taken in by another family. Everyone believes China sent the flu to America, so Jenny is viewed with suspicion and has no friends outside her adoptive family.
As boys often do, Steve gets into a fight with another boy named Will Henry, son of the town’s most prominent citizen. The Henrys never wanted Steve to come to Settler’s Landing and they’ve always hated Jenny. She’s a strong, defiant girl who won’t tolerate being mistreated or unfairly labeled. One night Steve and Jenny play a prank on the town that goes horribly wrong. They set off firecrackers to frighten farm animals into stampeding. Residents of Settler’s Landing believe that Fort Leonard is attacking them so they mount a counteroffensive. Fort Leonard responds in kind. Chaos and battle ensue as both sides misinterpret what’s going on.
Steve shows significant character development during the story, which makes it difficult to accept that he’s willing to risk his new life and that of his friends because of a petty dispute. That may not be his goal, but it is the result of his actions. Settler’s Landing and Steve himself are forever changed because of what he and Jenny do. But they redeem themselves in a series of heroic acts in the fast-paced conclusion. The surprises keep on coming until the final pages.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not include the influenza virus on its list of bioterrorism agents, although it probably belongs there. The first cases of human avian influenza (bird flu) were identified in Hong Kong in 1997, and although the disease is not highly contagious, the mortality rate still approaches 60%. Who knows what nightmare scenario a genetically altered and weaponized flu virus as envisioned in The Eleventh Plague could produce?
Mr. Hirsch delivers an intense and thought-provoking glimpse of one possible dystopian future. And he provides something that similar stories don’t always offer: hope and a chance for redemption. This stand-alone novel is a pleasant change from the trilogy format of so many others in which one must read all of the books to glean the entire story. It’s enjoyable to have it all told in one novel.