The backstory is that Mount Rainier has been obliterated by a catastrophic eruption that made the 1981 eruption of of Mount Saint Helens look like a popping party favor. Ash has obscured the sky and coated the landscape. City life has become tense, and 16 year old Miles Newell and his family decide it is time to exit stage left from the Minneapolis suburb where they live and head to their summer cabin at Birch Bay.
Miles is a talented young man with a knack for both mechanical things and remembering conversations in intricate detail. As the story unfolds we are introduced to Miles, his younger sister Sarah and their parents: Arthur and Nat. We are also introduced to the Ali Princess, a vehicle of the apocalypse worthy of a Mad Max film.
Weaver describes the Ali Princess:
"Perched on her six bicycle wheels, the Ali Princess looked like a gigantic grasshopper poised to spring away at first touch—or a dragonfly ready to take flight. Down her center, like an exoskeleton, was a bicycle built for two. The tandem bike with in-line, recumbent seats had belonged to my parents...Attached to the main bike, like legs on a water-strider bug, were two regular bikes...Their pedals, chains, and sprockets were hooked to the tadem bike through a common axle...The Princess, shaped roughly like a triangle, had a cargo bay of four lightweight aluminum lawn recliners bolted to either side ofthe main frame and secured to a wire-mesh floor...Straight up from the center of the Ali Princess rose my true inspiration: the sixteen-foot wooden mast and sail that had belonged to my father's boat..."
Miles' family strikes out into the unknown on the Ali Princess. It's no easy journey they experience as they look for a refuge from the post-apocalyptic world of Memory Boy.
A parallel backstory is that of Miles meeting an elderly Mr. Kurz at a nursing home as part of a class project from before the volcanic eruptions. Miles listens with varing degrees of interest as Mr. Kurz tells of living in the woods on public land near the headwaters of the Mississippi before being tricked into the nursing home by his meddling family. When things don't exactly work out at the Newell family's summer cabin they head into the unknown to look for Mr. Kurz's hidden cabin.
The book seems to be targeted to young adults. The topics are serious, but not terribly sinister in nature. Having said that, I questioned my own judgment at times as I read the book to my five year old and my eight year old. I really doubted myself when my son asked me one day not too long ago: "Dad, is the apocalypse real?"
The book has a lot I like. It's post-apocalyptic fiction. There are bikes. Recumbent bikes. There's a secret cabin in the woods; and a bit of woodlore. I think the story would have been stronger with some more survival elements. As it is, there's a lot of good post-apocalyptic fare without going overboard. The characters still have one foot in the real world and have hopes of going back to "normal" one day soon.
While not the best post-apocalyptic work I've read, Memory Boy has a place within the genre and fills a unique niche. I have come across very few PA stories that involve natural catastrophes as the impetus for apocalypse.
I have to admit, Memory Boy inspired my current family emergency plan: apocalypse version. If ever we had to flee Denver we'd do so on the cargo bikes and towing the "apocalypse buggy."
In the event of apocalypse, trailer would be laden with survival gear and not wheelbarrow