Like many of you, I spent many hours back in the day reading the various exploits of John Thomas Rourke and his family and friends. THE SURVIVALIST, created and written by Jerry and Sharon Ahern, inspired countless imitators as well as influenced many preppers and survivalists still at it today. Even now, some 35+ years after the first book was published, Sharon has kept the series alive, writing several new volumes in the last few years with author Bob Anderson.
If you’ll recall, originally John Rourke and his wife Sarah had two kids – Michael and Annie. Early on, we also met Paul Rubenstein, who would become John’s closest friend, and Natalia Tiemerovna, a Russian spy who was also very close to John. Toward the end of the original series, John placed everyone, including himself, into cryogenic sleep for a few hundred years to allow the planet to heal from all the ravages from war and such. He deliberately woke himself and his children earlier than the others. John spent several years teaching Michael and Annie survival skills, weapons, and combat tactics as they grew into adults. He then went back into cryogenic sleep until everyone else woke. Sarah, mother of Michael and Annie, was less than pleased about having missed their childhoods and eventually divorced John. Biologically, all involved were now approximately the same age. Paul and Annie got together, as did Michael and Natalia. John remarried as well. As a result we have:
Paula – daughter of John Thomas Rourke
Tim – son of John Thomas Rourke
Natalie – daughter of Paul Rubenstein and Annie Rourke
Jack – son of Paul Rubenstein and Annie Rourke
Sarah – daughter of Michael Rourke and Natalia Tiemerovna
John Paul – son of Michael Rourke and Natalia Tiemerovna
The world has moved on and has more or less fully recovered from the nuclear war that started the series. Society is much like we enjoy today, with schools, businesses, and the like. Basically, a rather normal world. Of course, it isn’t an actual Utopia and there are bad people as well as good. A few of the former abduct Paula and Natalie, along with Tim and Jack. They are rescued (all of which essentially happens off-screen, though we are given a flashback of sorts from Paula) but the incident led to a realization that these kids need training and education on how to best protect themselves. All of them are sent off to Camp Zero, a training facility established by John Thomas Rourke to teach people survival skills.
Author Sean Ellis explains Camp Zero as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts but with survival training instead of magic. After reading CAMP ZERO, I’m inclined to agree. For ease and convenience, I’m going to refer to the children in that list above collectively as the Rourke Kids. They are among about two dozen students at Camp Zero, which is located in the Texas Panhandle. The Rourke Kids are there kind of undercover. While at least some the instructors are aware of the lineage of the Rourke Kids, the other students are not.
Upon arrival to the camp, the students are given a basic orientation and introduction. They’re told they will receive training in a wide range of subjects, from wilderness survival to wild edibles, navigation to weapons. Students who successfully complete the curriculum will receive the John Thomas Rourke Fighting Bowie (a real knife, which I reviewed here a while back).
Early on, the students are placed into teams. Not so much as competitors but so the instructors can deliver more personalized training. Sandy “Ma” Tempest serves as the primary training coordinator, something akin to a drill instructor but perhaps not quite as gruff. We’re introduced to several other students, too. Clayton tends to run his mouth a lot and rarely has anything good to say. Matthew is confident and handsome. Alma and Kevin are nice though they seem a bit older than most of the students. Friendships are formed and while the work is hard, the students are learning important lessons.
As the book progresses, some of the Rourke Kids become convinced something is afoot at Camp Zero and that all is not as it seems. When a tragic accident occurs, they decide enough is enough and hatch a plan to uncover the truth. As one might suspect, things don’t go quite as planned. There is more than one twist and turn along the way and I really truly didn’t see them all coming but it all made sense in the end.
Each character is fully developed. Their actions remain true to their motivations and the only things that appear to come out of left field are those related to the aforementioned twists and turns. The dialogue rings true as well. While there is some violence and bloodshed, there is little in the way of harsh language and no adult content. This book would appeal to anyone from teens on up.
Ellis is an excellent and talented author. He pulls along and keeps us interested at each step of the journey. That he is fairly knowledgeable in wilderness survival is evident by the tidbits of information scattered throughout the book. The reader learns right along with the students. This is not a survival manual disguised as a novel but a novel that contains quite a bit of real world survival information. The action sequences are compelling and easy to follow. Of course, Ellis has written 20+ action-adventure novels to date so he’s had plenty of practice to hone those skills.
I really enjoyed CAMP ZERO. My understanding is that it is the first in a series and that Ellis is currently working on the second volume. He and I spoke at length about the book in a recent episode of my podcast, the Library at the End of the World. I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series.