One of the seven definitions in the Merriam Webster Dictionary of “song” defines it as a poem set to music, or a melody written for a lyric poem or ballad. In contrast: a “fairy tale” is defined as a children’s story about magical and imaginary beings and lands, or a fabricated story, especially one intended to deceive. I looked those up after reading the first sentence (maybe even the refrain?) of Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song: “This is not a fairy tale. This is a song.”
At the outset, Survivor Song gives us a glimpse into a tragically familiar tableau: the United States in the midst of a pandemic—a highly contagious variation of the rabies virus, passed through saliva, with a near 100% fatality rate due to its rapid onset. There are government-mandated curfews, a food shortage, and strict shelter-in-place laws. We see all this through the eyes of the very pregnant Natalie, just outside of Boston, as she faces an even more familiar struggle: parsing conflicting information in the form of social media posts, radio interviews, and byzantine government statements, trying to figure out what exactly she needs to do to keep her unborn child and husband safe.
But she never gets the chance. An infected man bullies his way into her home, kills her husband Paul, and attacks her. A single bite to Natalie’s forearm is the locus out of which the entire song spins. Natalie seeks help from her longtime friend and doctor, Ramola, and, like an epic poem, the pair embark on a zigzagging journey to get Natalie treatment for her wound and a place to safely deliver her baby.
Ramola (lovingly called Rams) is the Sam to Natalie’s (Nats) Frodo. She is level-headed, ever practical, and a fierce protector, willing to go to any lengths to ensure Nats’ safety. In fact, it’s the grounded Ramola who makes sure this story does not become a fairy tale. From the start, she will not abide the magical thinking that can bloom in a world facing an unanticipated cataclysm like a pandemic. She uses logic and linear thinking—a whiteboard in her mind—to tackle the chaos around her. And, when the word “zombie” enters the narrative, she eschews it. As Natalie makes real-time voice recordings to her unborn child, she teases, “Can you hear Auntie Rams tsking me each time I say ‘zombie’?” But even as Nats pokes fun at her, Ramola’s disapproval makes her concede the truth of her own mortality, the truth her magical thinking protects her from: “Dead is dead. There’s no coming back…it’s easier to say zombie than ‘a person infected with a super rabies virus and no longer capable of making good decisions.”