THE SHADE OF THE MOON is the fourth in Susan Beth Pfeffer's "The Last Survivors" series, which focuses on what happens to the world when an asteroid crashes into the moon, moving its orbit closer to Earth. The first book, LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, was Miranda Evans story of her family's devastating experiences in Pennsylvania, told through journal entries. The second book, THE DEAD AND GONE, focused on Alex Morales and his family in New York City. The third book, THIS WORLD WE LIVE IN, united both families as Miranda and Alex fell in love. Now, with THE SHADE OF THE MOON, the story continues in Tennessee, where Miranda and Alex live in a poverty-stricken town called White Birch and her younger brother Jon lives with their stepmother Lisa and her son Gabe in an "enclave" called Sexton. Billions of people have died in the four years since the asteroid hit the moon, and the world that remains is nothing at all like the one left behind. The story in this fourth installment focuses mainly on Jon's budding romance with Sarah, the daughter of the enclave's new doctor, as well as Jon's struggle to hold onto his safe place in the enclave while not betraying the rest of his family.
Apparently, society has become divided into two distinct classes - the "clavers," who live in the protected, affluent "enclaves," and the "grubs," who do the manual labor and live in "grub towns" like White Birch. Jon, Lisa, and Gabe were lucky enough to get "slips" (passes that enable them to live in an enclave town), but Alex, Miranda, and her mom Laura weren't that lucky - they are "grubs," living lives very different from the one Jon is living. Clavers have access to good food, medical care, nice homes, and education for their children. Grubs work as servants in claver homes, or in the greenhouses where food is grown, or in the mines. Jon is torn between his nice life in Sexton and his mom and sister's squalid existence in White Birch. It doesn't help that Miranda is pregnant and still expected to work ten hours a day in the greenhouses, or that new girl Sarah is a "grub-lover" - she and her doctor father are determined to do whatever they can to make life easier for the disenfranchised, and this is not at all popular with the others in the enclave. If Jon goes along with Sarah, he'll make enemies in Sexton which could risk his and Lisa's chances to remain there. But if he doesn't, he'll lose Sarah.
There are two problems with THE SHADE OF THE MOON, making it a much less successful novel than LIFE AS WE KNEW IT. First, the relationship between Jon and Sarah just isn't developed enough to make it either believable or compelling. He meets her at the start of the book, they have lunch together at school, they sit together on the bus, and then they're trading kisses. There's nothing to explain why they're attracted to each other, much less why they fall "in love" so quickly. Since this relationship is at the heart of everything that happens in the course of the novel, the lack of any real connection between them (or any believable chemistry) is problematic.
The second problem is the society Pfeffer has created in this book - the clear division of society into the clavers (or "haves") and the grubs (or "have-nots") is a bit too over-the-top to be believable. Only four years have passed since the asteroid hit the moon, and all of these characters have clear memories of what life was like before. It makes no sense that things would have devolved so quickly into a hostile environment in which the majority of the remaining population has become virtual slave labor for the privileged few. And it makes even less sense that everyone seems to comfortable with this system. No one objects. No one wants to fight for equality. When Sarah suggests that some of the kids in her class do their required volunteer work at a grub clinic in White Birch, they delight in calling her "grub-lover," one girl spits on her, and they start chanting "grubby, grubby, grubby" while their teacher laughs. Jon and his male friends routinely spend their free time in White Birch getting drunk and having sex with grub girls (who will sleep with anyone for a bar of soap). Grub servants are mistreated and overworked, the grub miners are worked to death, and grub babies are stolen from their mothers and given to infertile claver couples to raise. It's very difficult to believe that such a society could have developed in just four years. And if you can't believe in the society, the story just doesn't work.
The best part of THE SHADE OF THE MOON - the thing that saves it from being a total waste of time - is Jon's character. This is a seventeen-year-old boy who begins, through the course of the novel, to realize just how much of a coward he really is. It may have started with what happened to Julie in the previous book, but it continues in his inability to stand up for Sarah against his friends, or to protect his mother and sister from the clavers who hurt them. Jon is a flawed character, and Pfeffer definitely gets her readers to both identify with him and wonder whether their decisions in such a world would be any different than his. Would any of us risk our cushy, comfortable lives to stand up to injustice? It's the kind of question that young people need to consider.
Unfortunately, this isn't a very successful novel. I loved LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, and I enjoyed elements of the next two books. But I'm not convinced that any of the sequels were really necessary. LIFE AS WE KNEW IT worked because it was a small story, about one girl's experience during a natural disaster. At the end of that novel, Pfeffer affirmed the human spirit and our need for each other. It's very hard to understand how, in just four short years, the human spirit was conquered and greed and hatred took its place. If you've read the other three books and want to know what happens to these characters, then you might want to read this one. But it isn't a book that works well on its own. There will be more books in this series - the ending of THE SHADE OF THE MOON sets up the next installment - but LIFE AS WE KNEW IT really does stand alone. For me, this one didn't work.