38 pages 1 hour read

Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1959

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Summary and Study Guide


Alas, Babylon is a 1959 novel by Pat Frank. Written during the Cold War, it is one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels to deal with the potential consequences of nuclear war. It examines themes of nationalism, natural selection, deterrent force, and resilience.

Plot Summary

As the novel begins, Mark Bragg sends a telegram to his brother, Randy. The telegram includes the words, “Alas, Babylon,” their code for the onset of a nuclear attack. Mark is an officer in the Air Force and remains in Omaha on military duty but sends his wife, Helen, and their children, Ben Franklin and Peyton, to stay with Randy in Fort Repose, Florida.

Randy begins preparing for the nuclear fallout that will follow the attack by gathering supplies and making plans. He warns his closest neighbors, the Henry family, and Lib McGovern, a woman he is dating. The following morning, nuclear explosions destroy Washington, D.C., much of New England, major cities in Florida, and more. Fort Repose loses electricity and quickly becomes isolated.

Randy establishes himself as a leader, which Fort Repose needs since law and order quickly begin to crumble. Much of the novel describes the residents’ attempts to gather food, water, and gasoline, and to retain the elements of civilization that they value. The town doctor, Dan Gunn, who is also Randy’s best friend, learns that people are suffering from radiation poisoning. The source of the radiation is contaminated jewelry amassed by a politician named Porky Logan. After Porky dies, the undertaker provides a lead-lined coffin to bury him and the contaminated jewelry.

Highwaymen rob and beat Dan Gunn while he is making his rounds to patients. In response, Randy institutes martial law and assembles a group of volunteers to hunt down the attackers. He marries Lib on Easter Sunday and then takes his men to ambush the robbers, killing three of them and taking one hostage. Malachai Henry, one of Randy’s friends and neighbors, dies in the gunfight. Randy hangs the fourth robber according to the orders of martial law.

The remainder of the novel describes the following summer. Fort Repose loses its salt supply. However, the residents of Fort Repose find an old diary that mentions a nearby pool, where they find salt. The fish in the river also stop biting, threatening the town with a massive food shortage. Peyton, after consulting with Preacher Henry, finds a solution to this situation. The fish have left the shores of the river to escape the heat and are in the deeper pools in the middle. After weighting down her hooks and using goldfish as bait, she catches several large bass.

Near the end of the summer, Air Force jets pass overhead. A helicopter arrives and a man Randy knew before the war, Paul Hart, tells them about the condition of the rest of America: Some cities have been completely destroyed, and the contaminated zones may take hundreds of years to recover. Paul also tells them that America won the war, but that the victory doesn’t matter. Hart offers the residents a chance to leave Fort Repose, but they decide to stay together and rebuild their town.