96 Miles by J. L. Esplin has the look and feel of an apocalyptic novel. Twelve-year-old John and eleven-year-old Stewart Lockwood are the offspring of single-parent and survivalist, Jim Lockwood. Their father is away on a business trip when a massive power outage strikes their area of the Nevada desert. The boys are unfazed because they have six months’ worth of water and supplies, plus a generator. What they don’t anticipate is the ruthlessness of people as materials grow scarce and the situation drags on. Forced at gunpoint to abandon their property, the narrator John immediately assumes the role of protector, a position his younger brother sometimes resents. He sets out to walk to Brighton Ranch, the home of a close family friend, 96 miles down the highway, in three days. Before long, the brothers are accompanied by two other children, Cleverly Iverson and her little brother, Will. John reluctantly accepts them on their journey at Stew’s urging, and he soon realizes the benefit of their presence, especially Cleverly, a selfless, intelligent girl who is mature beyond her twelve years. Newcomer J. L. Esplin unpacks the plot gradually, feeding the reader a bit of information to put together the puzzle. She transcends the expected blisters, sunburn, and dehydration to make 96 Miles a page-turner full of surprise and suspense that made this reader gasp aloud at least twice. Though the narrative is dire, the author provides the deftly drawn characters with senses of humor and sufficient depth to deem them worthy of their self-named tag, Battle Born. This moniker takes on a significant meaning when it becomes apparent that “survival of the fittest” is an innate impulse even in these likeable characters.
THOUGHTS: This book gives lots of survivalist tips that teachers may be able to incorporate into science lessons. Critical thinking skills are also relevant because John is challenged to make important decisions that effect his life and the lives of his companions. Different times in the story “survival of the fittest” is put to the test causing discomfort or generating discussion. Is there evidence at the end that the Battle Born are willing to let bygones be bygones? Stew and the family friend have diabetes, a factor that lends to the urgency of the quartet’s travels. Reminiscent of Susan Beth Pfieffer’s Last Survivor series and Mike Mullin’s Ashfall.
Action/Adventure Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia