Teacher's bookshelf: A post-apocalyptic novel blending life and literature

For senior secondary English teachers, a sign of success that goes well beyond study scores is to hear students still talking about texts years after studying them.

I was honoured to once receive an email from a former student who was visiting Iceland and had been inspired to retrace the steps of the protagonist from Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, four years after completing Year 12. In a similar way, I felt a guilty sense of pride earlier this year when invited into a social media conversation between some of last year's graduates. They were proclaiming that ‘Station Eleven​​ is becoming real!' and analysing the eerie similarities between Emily St John Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel and human behaviours observed in recent months in Melbourne and around the world.

In the 2014 novel, the fictional Georgia Flu is brought to Toronto by a plane full of passengers from Moscow and its escalation catches the world off-guard. The first indicator of its impact is from a panicked doctor who phones his friend, Jeevan, warning him of the inadequacies of the healthcare system to handle such a crisis. There are not enough beds and ventilators to deal with its growth, he is told, and he should ‘stock up on food and stay in your apartment'. At first Jeevan finds this hard to believe. It's the 21st Century after all. But soon he fills as many supermarket trolleys as he can, including one that ‘was all toilet paper'.

A confronting novel for current times

Well before COVID-19 began dominating the news, many VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) English students had already been engaged in a world in which an even more brutal pandemic swiftly eliminates a vast majority of humanity, creating a divide between the pre-collapse world of freely available travel, concerts, supermarkets, social media and technology and a post-collapse world in which survival is a daily objective. While this may still seem far-fetched, my former students noted that as recently as February, so too would be supermarket customers physically fighting over toilet paper. Station Eleven is a novel that positions us to consider what we take for granted in a society of overindulgence, all the more confronting as we reflect on the closure of our restaurants, bars, gyms, theatres and our regular way of life.

For one of my graduates, the starkest image so far has been the lines of planes grounded at airports around Australia as borders closed and skies fell silent. Likewise, Mandel uses imagery of planes sitting dormant for years to highlight a loss of human connectivity after the pandemic, and also the irony of the modern day connectedness that enabled the virus to spread so rampantly in the first place. The novel suggests there is a self-defeating nature to technology. Its most tragic image is of one final plane that lands and is moved away from the terminal and left on the tarmac, like a cruise ship full of passengers unable to disembark. ‘No one goes to meet it.'

Prophetic? Probably not. But definitely cautionary as to society's reaction to such a pandemic.

Importantly, Station Eleven​ ​ is not a typical apocalyptic novel. There are no zombies here, except for the ‘iPhone zombies' that Mandel implies wander brainlessly across the pre-collapse world. While the novel covers several time periods, its central narrative takes place 20 years after the collapse and its storyline focuses predominantly on how humankind recovers. Survival of individuals is important, but survival of culture, art and ‘what's best about the world' is even more so. Readers are invited to consider what they would save if the responsibility was theirs to rebuild humanity.

An opportunity to draw on students' contextual experiences

It's been reaffirming to see that many of my most recent graduates, millennials with no memory of a time that preceded scrolling through ‘photographs of lunches (and) relationship-status updates' can readily connect with the criticism Mandel offers of the modern world. One student recalled a VCE essay she wrote regarding the ways in which the bravest characters in Station Eleven are those of the Travelling Symphony who risk their lives to bring Shakespeare and Beethoven to some of the remaining pockets of humanity. Crossbows in one hand, playscripts in the other, they traverse the wasteland with the mantra ‘Survival is insufficient' – a quote Mandel openly admits she borrowed from Mr Spock in Star Trek.

Fortunately, here in Australia we are not so apocalyptic. And hopefully we stay that way. But senior secondary students writing about Station Eleven at present should at least take advantage of this current blending of life and literature. Remember that Mandel does not create a novel about how to survive an apocalypse, in fact she implies that individual survival is random and meaningless, as explored through the survivor's guilt felt by Kirsten, another key character. Rather, she holds up a mirror to modern society and questions what is worth saving.

And for teachers considering text selection for 2021, when coronavirus is hopefully viewed only in hindsight, this is a unique opportunity to draw upon students' own contextual experiences in exploring a novel. The fact that mine are still talking about it today as avidly as we did last year reminds me that what we teach through text response can, and should, make an impact that lasts well beyond an exam.

What is your process for text selection and how do you anticipate student engagement with texts?

What strategies do you apply to help students make connections between the ideas explored in texts and their own lives?