Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. Harper Perennial, 1959. 323 pp. 978-0-06-074187-7.
...in which the US is nuked and a small town in Florida has to learn to adapt to life in a postapocalyptic world.
This is an older book, written during the height of the Cold War, when distrust of the Soviets and fear of nuclear warfare were high. The setting is Fort Repose, Florida, a small backwoods town. It's a pretty typical 1950s small Southern town... mostly racially segregated, populated by good God-fearing church goers. The main character is Randall Bragg, the younger son of a formerly wealthy, politically influential Fort Repose family. Randy lives in Fort Repose after returning from Korea, where he fought in the US Army. Randy's older brother is a highly ranked officer in the Air Force, stationed in Omaha. Randy's brother reads the signs of a coming nuclear war, and sends his wife and children to live with Randy in Fort Repose. When the nuclear war starts, all of the major cities in Florida are annihilated, Fort Repose is cut off from the outside world, and all of the modern institutions start to fail, starting with the banks. Money becomes useless, the electricity eventually fails, and gasoline is a very, very limited commodity. In a turn of events that reminds me of Battlestar Galactica, the President, Vice President, most of the Cabinet, and most of Congress are killed, leaving the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (a woman) as the acting Chief Executive of the United States. She declares martial law, and as Randy is a Reserve officer, that leaves him as the leader of his community.
I don't know whether reading this book now, in 2010, significantly affects its emotional impact. In any case, the book's descriptions of how quickly an orderly community can fall into chaos are chilling. The book is not so much a political commentary on disarmament, and it's not a war novel with grisly descriptions of destroyed cities and nuclear detonations; it's a story about normal people in a normal town who are suddenly cut off from the rest of the world. In fact, the characters in the book don't learn who won the war until the very last page of the novel, when someone from outside of the contaminated zones finally comes to their community.
The interactions between the characters and the descriptions of how each character deals with the situation are well written and engaging. It's easy to feel sympathy for most of the characters, because Pat Frank does a great job of making them all seem very human and real.
I picked this book up in the science fiction section of the bookstore, but I would disagree with that classification. Apart from "alternate history" aspect where the US and the Soviet Union obliterate each other with nukes, the story is very, very grounded in reality. Definitely a recommended read!