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Book Review: The Unit by Terry DeHart

Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: July 14, 2010
ISBN-10: 0316077402
ISBN-13: 978-0316077408
Author Website: Terry DeHart

Terry DeHart’s debut novel The Unit is a post-apocalyptic narrative permeated with themes of family, faith, and pyschology. The story begins two weeks after a nuclear holocaust has hit seven major cities in the United States. The Sharpe family lived outside Sacramento, but were on their way to an undisclosed location for Christmas when Sacramento was leveled by a nuclear bomb. Their electronics out of commission due the accompanying electromagnetic pulse, the family of four – mother, father, and late teen children – must find a way to deal with the aftermath when there is no law but survival.

DeHart, a Marine and disaster preparedness expert, brings his knowledge to bear in creating the novel. The plot is developed through seven interwoven perspectives, that of the family and three of their antagonists. Dehart drops the reader right into the story, developing the backstory of the family in dribbles and memories even as he places them in opposition against a mob of released juvenile delinquents from an isolated prison.

Each of the heroes of the story deals with their situation in their own way. The father, Jerry, calls up his Marine training and stoically attempts keep his family alive. Susan, his wife, trusts her husband, but has lost any love for him, staying with the family only for the sake of her children and out of renewed faith in God. Melanie, the pacifist, does everything she can to deny what is happening, though even when she becomes the victim of violence she never denies her principles, an unusual twist on this type of character. And Scott, the youngest, wants vengeance and begins to see himself as a Messiah when seeming miracles continue to happen around and to him.

On the flip side of the coin are Bill Junior, leader of the gang of boys, who must constantly justify his actions to himself, Bill Senior, a debauched and angry man who only sinks farther into lonely and selfish depravity, and Donnie, who serves Bill Junior only because he has no other option. DeHart skillfully weaves all these perspectives together both the advance the plot and explore the different psychological and emotional responses to a nuclear disaster people might have.
DeHart keeps the tension high, not shying away from the atrocities that would accompany a breakdown of law and order in an American setting. There are few pages in which there is not some sort of action sequence involving death, and even when there is not, there is emotional trauma instead. It is hard not to read this entire novel in one sitting, as it the tension is so palpable you almost fear to walk away without knowing how it concludes for the family.

The story also delves into issues of faith. Susan finds a previously lost faith, only to have it immediately challenged. Scott finds one he never had before, though twists it to his own ends. Melanie continues in her disbelief of religion and belief in a philosophy and Jerry is the only one who really finds anything close to real faith in a Supreme Being. DeHart makes these approaches a permeating theme, careful to make them fit into the character without drawing a conclusion, though one wonders if the author himself may have his own issues with belief in God that are being worked out in the context of the tale.

The Unit is a high-tension, high octane post-apocalyptic novel that delves deeply into the minds and hearts of the people involved in such a situation. It is both psychologically and emotionally deep while still being full of the non-stop violence one expects from such a work. This is apocalyptic story to stand alongside such greats as Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or the Wastelands anthology edited by John Joseph Adams. I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best in its genre I’ve read to date.