The Death of Grass (No Blade of Grass) – A Short Review

Posted on February 12, 2013

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     I just finished reading John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, a short, quick post-apocalyptic work of fiction first published in 1956. The American publishers of the book changed the name to No Blade of Grass in 1957. The book was an immediate best seller and eventually (1970) became the basis for a movie (low-budget, forgettable). I stretched out reading the book over two weeks but a more determined mind could finish it in 1-3 days (which is what my wife did). Science fiction aficionados in particular will zip through it.

The book is well written. The language is taut and the characters layered and realistic. The book takes place in the present and the characters reference both World Wars throughout;  the reader will come to expect this. It begins with two young brothers visiting their formerly estranged grandfather in the north of England. The old man leaves his farm to David, the older grandson, because he falls in love with the lifestyle and land. The main character, John Custance, is the younger brother who plans on becoming an engineer in London. The two grow up and live their separate lives while remaining close. John does well in his white-collar profession. He marries Ann and they have two children. His closest friend Roger Buckley is a government employee with prominent political connections. Ann does not like Roger (and vice versa) but is a close friend to his wife, Olivia, so they socialize often. The Buckley’s have one son.

The U.N. broadcasts news about famine in China. A grass-eating virus has decimated the rice crops and with alarming speed, the great rural masses are starving. Hong Kong (which was still a British colony at the time) falls under siege and though it receives grain shipments from the Western World, does not survive being overrun by 200 million refugees. The radio reports the virus spreading to SE Asia, India and the Middle East, with similar mass panics and deaths. Roger’s connections in government keep him abreast of the latest scientific attempts to battle the virus. At first, it seems the experts will stop the virus before it threatens the “civilized” world but pretty soon, it shows up on the British mainland. David has been monitoring the story of the virus since its inception and offers John  shelter for his family, to protect against probable food shortages (he planted beets and potatoes when the grass was first infected). John keeps this in mind, all the more so, when Roger tells him of a ghastly plan hatched by the Prime Minister of England.

The laboratory attempts to combat the grass-eating virus (Ching-Li) failed and the international bureaucracy bumbled as bureaucracies do. Roger informs John of the government’s plan to bomb the largest cities in England to ensure survival for a portion of the people. They estimate  1/3 of the population must die because the grass has all disappeared and no more food from abroad will be incoming (Europe suffers the same as Britain and North America is being careful with their supply). They intend to seal all of London’s people in to make the hydrogen bombing effective. Trying to stay ahead of the plan’s implementation, the two men gather up their families and hurry out of London. Already, they must battle through checkpoints and stay ahead of the other people privy to the same information. The radio broadcasts assure listeners that there is nothing to worry about and to disregard unfounded rumors (sound familiar?). The police impose travel restrictions “temporarily, as a safety measure”.

They leave London in three cars, the Custance’s, the Buckley’s, and Pirrie’s (an older gun store owner who becomes a major force in the story line). They pick up the children at their boarding schools and barely make it beyond that before chaos breaks out. The revelation of the Prime Minister’s plans causes his government to flee. London becomes a mob scene as do other cities. The three families learn a few things about what’s happening nationally through scattered radio reports but observe a lot more anecdotally. In the course of a few days while trying to reach David’s farm, they witness and take part in all manners of brutal street fighting.  John becomes the leader of the gang with Pirrie becoming his enforcer and they throw the rules of civilization out the window.

This book is full of suspense and drama. Lesser authors would have fixated on a few of the more shocking plot twists and wound the story around them, but Christopher keeps the action moving, like a locomotive running its course. I kept thinking back to the time of the book’s release, so soon after the horrific WWII and thick in the middle of the Cold War. I’ve been tempted to think of the 1950’s as bucolic and tranquil, but that’s obviously from the vantage point of my upbringing. I appreciate Christopher’s lack of sentimentality and his ability to extrapolate a “what if…” scenario. There were a few times while I was reading that  I thought it was unbelievable, but only a few. ”  I also thought he might be a libertarian but many have thought the same of other gifted writers of that era (Orwell, Huxley) and have been proven wrong. Jeremiah 17:9 reads: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” That text would be my choice if asked to sum up The Death of Grass in Scriptural terms. The ending of the book was provocative; a gut check!

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