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The history of America has been told many times—but never like this.
It’s been a busy year for Booklist’s Books for Youth Editor Daniel Kraus. This summer saw the release of Trollhunters (2015), which he coauthored with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Now, the first volume of Kraus’ sprawling The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch duology is about to hit the shelves—mark your calendars for October 27. In it, 17-year-old Zebulon is killed in his prime yet curiously comes back to “life.” His mind is intact; he can walk and talk; yet his body remains scientifically dead. The book, then, is Zebulon’s own account of his life after death, moving through the decades of the twentieth century (volume 1 spans the years 1879–1941) and giving them a unique spin.
How, readers will surely wonder, did Kraus devise this premise? “It came from a discussion I had 20 years ago about the sadness of being of a zombie, which sounds like a joke but wasn’t. The idea that you could shamble across time and witness a human’s powerlessness to stop the tides of history—it was a rich concept to me.”
Those tides certainly crash around Zebulon, sweeping him into a traveling medicine show, the trenches of WWI, the backwoods stills of Prohibition, the glitz of Hollywood, and many other less savory locales. In each new endeavor, readers watch this perpetual teenager try to forge meaningful connections with the people in his life, but these prove difficult to maintain as everyone but Zebulon grows older.
His character, however, does not remain static, and his experiences gradually begin to reshape the way he interacts with the world—though his irreverent personality is a ballast throughout. As a result, Zebulon makes an entertaining and complex narrator. Both alive and dead, young and old, often more easily identified as a villain or scoundrel than a hero—readers can’t help but enjoy being in his company.
“And it’s a good thing, because if you’re going to spend well over a thousand pages with a character, the conversation better be pretty good,” Kraus says. “Zebulon is a great foil. He was always challenging me, always surprising me with his stubbornness and sense of humor, always reminding me, at the most inconvenient of moments, that elemental natures are very, very difficult to alter, though I was going to keep on trying.”
As Zebulon is the one fixture in an ever-shifting landscape, time and history almost become characters in their own right. Without lingering over historical details, Kraus imbues the essence of each time period into Zebulon’s adventures from one decade to the next. Accomplishing this was no mean feat, he says. “The level of research required was sickening. I had to think of each section, roughly divided by era, as its own book, just to keep my head straight. Aligning plot points with historical events is a whole new level of hell.”
This alternate historical survey is a bit of a departure for Kraus, whose previous work has fallen more solidly into the category of horror, particularly Rotters (2011) and Scowler (2013). Fans need not worry, however; there is plenty in his new book to make the skin crawl and the stomach churn—the protagonist is decomposing, after all—blended as it is with history’s own horrors.
“Where do you put this book? Historical fiction? Adventure? Horror? Dark comedy? Classical melodrama? Good question,” says Kraus. “You write something this big, it’s likely going to rope in a lot of disparate elements. I wanted to write my version of a big, giant Herman Wouk novel that had its arms, as ghastly as they might be, open to every sort of influence.”
However one chooses to classify this book, it remains challenging and daring, and Kraus pulls no punches. “I just wanted to try,” he says. “That’s all I ever want from authors I read, anyway: an attempt to do something radical, even a failing one, is of more interest to me than a polished entry into the status quo.”
The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, v.2: Empire Decayed will be shambling your way soon.
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