Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A disparate assortment of kids are forced together by desperate circumstances to form a mini-society in order to survive. That’s right, I’m getting the Lord of the Flies references out of the way early. Because this? Is not really like that. Monument 14 is your basic end-of-the-world, apocalyptic scenario, where a natural disaster is just the beginning of a harrowing ordeal for a group of teens and pre-teens.
The time? 2024. The place? Monument, Colorado. The problems? Are just starting.
A freak hailstorm forces fourteen kids—six high schoolers, 2 eight graders, and six younger children—to seek refuge in Greenway, a Wal-Mart-like superstore otherwise devoid of inhabitants. Instructed to stay there while the only adult—a bus driver—goes for help, the fourteen kids settle in for the time being. They soon learn that a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands triggered a mega-tsunami and supercell storms. The East Coast is drowned. The Rockies are devastated. And then an 8.2 earthquake hits, causing further destruction and releasing clouds of toxic chemicals from NORAD storage facilities.
So we have volcanoes, killer hail, earthquakes, tsunamis, and toxic chemicals. It’s like an all-star lineup of things which are bad for you. It gets worse: as our heroes soon discover, the chemicals which have now saturated the air for hundreds of miles in every direction have different effects depending on your blood type, including hallucinations, blisters, and episodes of deranged violence. So now they’re trapped in the Greenway with no way out and no way to find help. On the bright side, they still have power and a store the size of a small town filled with food, water, and supplies of every sort.
To their credit, they soon form a rudimentary society, with the ever-prepared Niko assuming charge while the narrator (Dean) handles cooking, and the super-efficient Josie turns their refuge into a living space and gets the younger kids in a semblance of order. Sadly, not everyone’s on track: football hero Jake is more interested in getting drunk and high than in survival, and Dean’s crush Astrid has a breakdown and vanishes into the depths of the store. Personalities clash and tensions rise, with each of the fourteen responding to the crisis in their own way. Some just want to go home, some are in this for the long haul, and some are ready to give in to their base desires.
Everything changes when two adults find their way into the Greenway as well, giving our heroes a smidgen of hope that rescue is still possible, while upsetting the fragile balance of power. What happens next will test everyone’s resolve.
There’s plenty to like about this book. I was particularly interested in seeing how such a random assortment of people managed to create a mini-society, especially when almost half of their number were in kindergarten through third grade. Not exactly society-building material there, right? The whole process of eking out a survival in something like a Wal-Mart, where you have almost everything you need, has always been a topic of some interest, and it was handled quite nicely here. The range of personalities made for plenty of good storytelling and conflict, although some of the characters were a little too annoying for my liking. The buildup of tension and inevitability was well-paced, though I was almost disappointed when the adults showed up to disrupt the status quo. I could have followed our heroes for a while longer.
On the surface, this is a pretty strong book. For an apocalyptic scenario, there was still a fair share of hope—something that’s often in short supply once the world starts to end. And sure, the combination of disasters does seem like overkill, but when you’re ending the world, why not go for broke?
Now, I did have some issues with the story. First of all, the dialogue felt stiff in places. With Dean’s first person narration, allowances can be made for certain clunky phrases or awkward descriptions, and no one expects little kids to have a perfect grasp of grammar. However, there was just something off every once in a while about the dialogue, especially coming from adults or older teens.
Second of all, there’s an element of predictability which creeps into books like these, where you have to introduce a problem or two, or else. In this case, it was the introduction of the adults, Mr. Appleton and Robby. Perhaps I’ve read too many of these things, but it seems like any time you put an adult into a situation like this, they turn out to be nothing but trouble. And in this particular case, something ugly happens.
And that brings us to my third issue. One of the characters is an eighth-grader, a thirteen-year-old named Sahalia. Fashion-conscious and self-aware beyond her years, caught in that awkward transitional stage between “little kid” and “big kid,” she chafes at the boundaries and seems lost, identity-wise, for much of the book. Until she starts trying to use her sexuality as a tool. The end result is a pair of scenes which start at awkward before quickly moving into uncomfortable, and while nothing truly objectionable happens, it still felt like a giant red button of “Oh Hell No.” While it’s not entirely unreasonable under the circumstances, it’s not something one ever expects or necessarily wants to think about. It makes for some interesting character growth later, but at an odd contrast to the other issues at play.
It’s interesting that the three older females of the group (Astrid, Josie, and Sahalia) fall into female-oriented roles. Josie becomes a mother figure (despite being fifteen), Sahalia attempts to use her body, and Astrid is primarily the object of desire for the narrator, despite being absent from much of the onscreen action. Astrid and Josie are also cast as girlfriend/hooking-up objects for the various guys of appropriate age. Meanwhile, the guys fall into leader (Niko), cooking (Dean), rebel (Jake), technology (Dean’s younger brother Alex) and sidekick/secondary rebel (Brayden). The six younger kids fall into their own roles, but not so gender-defined. On the bright side, the cast is racially diverse and it’s easy to tell them apart based on behavior and attitude. By the end of the book, everything’s changed in significant ways, so we’ll see how matters sort themselves out in the sequel.
Ultimately, I think that this is a strong book with a few major flaws. I wouldn’t say any of the issues I had with Monument 14 are deal-breakers, but they do prevent this from being a much better offering. As a fiction debut (Emmy Laybourne is an actress and screenwriter), it’s a nice beginning and Laybourne shows plenty of potential.
For those interested in more YA novels featuring people trapped in buildings, I suggest No Safety In Numbers (thousands trapped in a mall due to a biological weapon) or This Is Not A Test (kids trapped in school thanks to zombie attack) or The Enemy (kids trapped in grocery store because of not-quite-entirely-zombies).
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Scheherazade’s Facade.