If you're of a certain age, you likely remember how you felt when you saw If You Love This Planet. How you were sure, after watching the 1982 NFB documentary about the nuclear arms race, that the world was going to end in a giant mushroom cloud any minute now and you would be caught unaware, writing an exam or doing your laundry, and you would never see your family or your friends again.
Caroline Adderson captures that terror in her new novel, The Sky Is Falling. It's 1983, and Jane, a second-year student at the University of British Columbia with an interest in Russian studies - especially Chekhov - has moved into a house filled with radical student activists. At first, she's just the quiet roommate. But after seeing the film, Jane is crushed and drawn into her housemates' political fight. "This is what people feel like when the doctor tells them they have cancer, I thought. I thought: I'm going to die. I have until 1985."
The Sky Is Falling is Adderson's most autobiographical book to date, the Vancouver-based author explains over a latte at a Kitsilano coffee shop a few blocks from Trutch Street, where the book is set. Adderson was 18, in Nova Scotia participating in the federal-government-sponsored travel/volunteer program Katimavik, when she saw If You Love This Planet. "I was completely shattered and I thought: Oh my God, I'm going to die. We're all going to die. Everyone's going to die."
Still charged up the following year when she arrived in Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia, Adderson joined a group of activists called SNAG (Sunday Night Action Group).
Adderson borrowed heavily from her SNAG experiences for the novel. Like the group NAG! (Non-violent Action Group!) described in the book, Adderson distributed anti-nuclear leaflets at the Hyatt hotel during a corporate conference; her group pasted "alternative messages" over military recruitment posters, and they altered stop signs so that they read "Stop War." (In the book, the group changes the names on street signs in Kitsilano so roads named after battles - Waterloo, Blenheim - are given more peaceful names such as Mandela and Gandhi streets.)
At university, Adderson decided to become a high-school teacher so she could raise students' consciousness and warn them about the nuclear peril. In the book, Jane's friend Sonia is training to become an elementary-school teacher, but is kicked out of the classroom when she warns the children about the impending nuclear holocaust.
And like the occupants of the Trutch Street house, Adderson was sure her phone was being tapped. (It wasn't, she later found out.) Adderson, now 47, started thinking about these events again around the time she turned 40. The thing that really struck her was that she had been diagnosed with cancer when she was 15 - an event that also makes its way into the book, through another character - but the impact of her illness was far less severe than the impact of seeing that film. It was thyroid cancer and treatable without chemotherapy, but still - it was cancer.
"I started looking back and thinking isn't it strange that when I was 15 I had cancer and never for a second did I feel imperiled,she says. "... Then, four years later, I'm completely obsessed with not only my own death, but the whole planet. So I was interested in these two periods of life and how we think about death. And at what point does our mortality become evident to us."
Adderson left SNAG because she couldn't stand the infighting. Anyway, the meetings had degenerated from planning actions to reading poetry. In the book, NAG!'s demise is far more violent.
Like her protagonist, Adderson aged into a comfortable middle-class life. She graduated, got married, had a child (now 11, the same age as Jane's son in passages of the book set in 2004). She wears nice things, lives in an upscale neighbourhood. The responsibilities of life have left no room - or desire - for radicalism. But it's something she strongly encourages in young people, who have the time and energy for it. "If the youth don't rebel, no one rebels."
The other day, Adderson noticed a stop sign in Kits plastered with the word "war" under the "stop" command, so that it read "Stop War." Once again, it took her back. And she was thrilled. "I thought, yes! They're still doing it!"
Caroline Adderson appears at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival (writersfest.bc.ca) Tuesday and Thursday (Oct. 19 and 21) and at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 30, then at IFOA readings in Orillia, Ont., and Barrie, Ont., on Nov. 2 and 3 (www.readings.org).