Novel on the Bomb Appeals to Children
Jonathan Tasini
October 25, 1985

When Whitley Strieber co-wrote Warday, a novel chronicling life after a limited nuclear war, he expected the book to arouse passions and controversy. He wasn't prepared, however, for the strong response that came from children, especially teen-agers.
     One plea came from Kim, a teen-ager from Baltimore who complained that Strieber did "not say what will happen to the animals. We are responsible for human life and also for helpless life," she wrote in a letter to Strieber.
     "That just blew my mind," Strieber said, sitting in a small cafe in New York City. "This girl had a unique vision as did other kids who wrote me. I had no idea they would be so affected by Warday. That got me thinking on how it must feel to be 14 and think you could be blown up in a nuclear war any day. I also realized what a tremendous amount of disaffection there must be among teen-agers, an extreme negativity."
     Strieber thus was inspired to write a children's book dealing with nuclear war. What emerged nine months later was Wolf of Shadows (Sierra Club/Knopf: $9.95), a tale that takes place after a nuclear war. The story portrays a mother, her child and a wolf pack as they all struggle to stay alive.
     Although humans and wolves face terrible conditions throughout the story, the book is not one of despair, nor does it beat the reader on the head with the nuclear war theme. "This book is not a book of strategies on how to survive nuclear war. The purpose of the book is to communicate inner strength at the same time that it expands the consciousness of the reader to the realities of post-nuclear life as it may or may not be," Strieber said. "It's about confronting real problems in productive ways and taking responsibility for events."
     Very few children's books dealing with nuclear war have been written, partly because it is a sensitive and complex issue.
     "Wolf of Shadows," some children's book experts say, is a positive contribution. "I found it a very compelling presentation of an issue a lot of adults tend to sidestep," said John Donovan, executive director of the Children's Book Council, a nonprofit association striving to encourage reading among children. "One of the problems in children's books (about nuclear war) is they can seem terribly didactic and therefore seem to say there is no way to handle the problem. It seems to me that this story could have been read for itself without a message."
     To some who remember Strieber's earlier horror novels - Wolfen and The Hunger - two consecutive books about nuclear war might seem out of character. Not so. From the time he was born in 1945 and throughout his childhood in San Antonio, Tex., Strieber has been surrounded by and involved in politics. His parents were both active liberal Democrats.
     Strieber recalled that when he was 8, his mother set up a one-room clinic next to a large cement plant so that the plant's itinerant workers would have basic medical care.

Moved to London

After graduating from the University of Texas, Strieber moved to London in 1968. A year later, he moved to New York City where he still lives with his wife and son. For the first eight years in New York, he worked as an account manager at an advertising firm, cramming in his writing at night when he got home. In 1977, he got his first big break when Wolfen was published, became a big success and eventually a movie. That allowed Strieber to take up writing full time and, three years later, The Hunger, a story about vampires, made it to the bookstores, followed soon after by two less successful horror novels.
     Soon after the most recent horror novel came out, Strieber and his boyhood friend, James Kunetka, began talking about the concept that eventually led to Warday. That book marked a kind of rebirth for Strieber. "I had been active in the civil-rights movement and the anti-war movement but about 1971, I got burned out on politics," he said. "A couple of years ago, I came back to life, probably because I feel if I'm not doing something political, I'm wasting my time."
     Once Strieber decided to craft a children's story involving animals, he knew immediately that he would use wolves, which have fascinated him for many years. In 1972, he traveled to Minnesota to track wolves in an effort to learn more about them. "My second night out, I heard them but I was very inexperienced and it was hard to track them," he said. "Finally, I saw one lying very still on the ground and I was so scared, I ran away. But I did get a flavor for the kind of country they live in.
     "Wolfen was an attempt to show that wolves aren't the evil things that they have been portrayed as," Strieber said. "Wolves can be wonderful but dangerous at the same time. They can kill but we must love them and have reverence for them. They symbolize the vulnerable, the threatened, the beautiful. They symbolize us."
     The entire children's book is told through the eyes of Wolf of Shadows, a large black wolf who senses the danger after the nuclear bombs drop. Slowly but surely, Wolf of Shadows, the rest of the wolves and the woman learn to trust and depend on each other as they flee the effects of a nuclear winter, a kind of Ice Age that many scientists believe would be triggered by a nuclear war.
     The wolves also act as a metaphor for relations between the superpowers. "We are not the good little bunnies and the Soviets are not the big bad wolves," Strieber said. "We have to learn to live with them even if they may be different because we have a mutual interest in not blowing each other up."
     The writing of the book was not a simple task. The characters came easily enough. In fact, Strieber loves all his characters, even the "men who come and threaten the woman and her child because they are acting out of deep instincts. They are trying to save their own families and that's not necessarily wrong. There's an attempt in the book to be open to the whole process of living."
     The book took nine months instead of the three months Strieber had planned on, not to mention 10 drafts, before the Sierra Club, the co-publisher of the book, accepted the story as an accurate portrayal of wolves. "The Sierra Club was hard to work with. They didn't know anything about fiction and I had a tremendous amount of trouble making it a story while still satisfying the realities of what wolves are like," he said. "At first, Wolf of Shadows sees colors but the Sierra Club maintained that wolves can't see colors, so I had to change that."
     Strieber has renewed his collaboration with Kunetka on a book titled Nature's End, a novel about the state of the environment 50 years from now, which will be published this spring. "I have all this energy to write. I guess I'm trying to make up for those years when I wasn't involved politically," he said.
     And while politics is very much on his mind, Strieber looks for salvation not to political parties or ideologies but to a populist spirit. "I don't really think that the left has a solution to the arms race anymore than the right does," he said. "I think the people, the kids of today, will have to solve the problems but they have to get back in touch with the planet first." ~

Tasini is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.
© 1985 The Times Mirror Company
All rights reserved