In After the
Snow (2012), the first book of S.D. Crockett’s eponymous young adult series, readers are introduced to an Earth ravaged by a new Ice Age some indeterminate number of years in the future. The novel follows the grueling struggle of a teenage protagonist to figure out what has happened to his family while making his way through an unforgiving and often brutal landscape.
Critics and readers find the book’s style somewhat polarizing. Written in the first person from the perspective of fifteen-year-old Willo, whose harsh and isolated upbringing has resulted in a deeply limited vocabulary rendered in an idiosyncratic dialect that is either tremendously moving or acts as an obstacle between reader and character.
Because the novel is primarily a character study of Willo, its dystopian world building takes a backseat, which readers attentive to detail find distracting. The novel is set in a future where climate change has brought about an Ice Age, which, in turn, has resulted in a totalitarian government taking over to restore order and bringing about extreme deprivation. But if the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic winter, why don’t the people use what must be tons of detritus left over from before the cataclysm took place (stripping computers for parts, or using rubber from tires for footwear, for instance)? Where has the “stuff” of the present world gone?
Willo has grown up as part of a backwoods community of isolationist “stragglers” – people who live off the land. As a result, he is a skilled hunter and artisan but is only barely literate. As he narrates his thoughts, he talks to himself via a spirit guide of sorts: the skull of a dog that he has embedded in a hat and wears as an emblem of strength. Dog alternatively gives him advice and acts as his conscience.
When he returns from a solo hunt, Willo finds that his family’s cabin is empty. All he can find of his father, his stepmother, Magda, and the few other people who live with them are truck tire tracks. At first, Willo is sure that this disappearance has something to do with his neighbor, Farmer Geraint, a much older man who has impregnated and then married Willo’s fourteen-year-old sister Alice. Packing a few survival essentials onto a sled, he sets out across the mountains on a freezing and dangerous journey to confront Geraint and get to the bottom of what has happened. Along the way, Willo considers the words of his father, who was the leader of the small group of stragglers on this side of the mountains, and who believed that there must be a better way of life.
While traveling, Willo comes across a cabin where two starving, near-frozen siblings wait for their father to come back. Knowing that he can’t take care of them – he doesn’t have enough supplies – Willo abandons the children only to see the dead body of their father just out of sight. However, as he is preparing to continue on his way, the voice of Dog guilts him into turning around. Too late to save the smaller child, he rescues thirteen-year-old Mary. After a harrowing escape from wolves that are scavenging the corpse of Mary’s father and a narrow brush with cannibals known as “greybeards,” Mary and Willo get to a road where they catch a ride on a truck bound for a nearby city.
We start to learn a little more about Willo’s world. The city is ruled by an authoritarian government that wants complete control over its citizens. However, pockets of resistance to this approach have sprung up – among them, people like Willo’s father, who struck out on their own without any city support to set up small communities in the wilderness. Those who rebel do so because of a belief in the philosophy of an unspecified book – a book of which mere knowledge is enough to result in being arrested.
Willo and Mary are picked up by a truck. However, because the only way to get into the city is by having the right “papers,” they are once again in danger. Luckily, the other truck riders take pity on the kids and shelter them from the security patrols that control the city gates.
In the city, Willo’s wilderness skills are no longer useful; Mary gets them shelter and food in a tent city. Willo struggles to find information about his father and the rest of his family but has to navigate around the authorities’ tightening search for anyone or anything associated with the resistance movement. Eventually, he and Mary are separated, and Willo is forced to leave the city once again.
He takes shelter with a kind older couple, Jacob, and his wife Dorothy, who allow him to spend the winter in their house in exchange for labor. At the same time, he learns about a mysterious Island – a place of refuge where life is supposedly much better. Eventually, he and Mary reunite, and both are eager to pursue the dream of the Island, joining the resistance in order to get on Island-bound ships. However, in a reversal that comes as a surprise, Willo realizes that he has made peace with his life, and rather than venturing out on the ocean, he and Mary decide to make their way south on land.