Empty City is the first book in the Survivors series, by the same authors — who collectively go by the nom de plume Erin Hunter — that produced the wildly popular Warriors series of books. Unlike the Warriors (cats), the Survivors are dogs, talking dogs (at least they talk among themselves) that find themselves in a city that has been devastated by a monstrous earthquake.
The animals behave like humans, although their language and concepts are primitive. The Survivors call the devastating earthquake the Big Growl, the sun is the Sun-Dog, their Great Spirit is called the Earth-Dog, cars are loud cages, and so forth.
The hero of the tale is one Lucky. A dog whose bad experience with a human owner has caused him to run away and live in the city as a Lone Dog, a loner who has chosen not to be one of the Leashed Dogs (owned by humans) or Pack Dogs (living as part of a dog pack).
He is proud of his independence, and doesn’t need or want to depend on or live with anyone. The Big Growl causes him to have doubts as to the wisdom of his Lone Dog status: the Big Growl has virtually destroyed the city, the food, the water, and the humans are all gone. It’s a dog-eat-dog situation, with each dog trying to survive as best he can. It’s tough to be a Lone Dog after the Big Growl! Encountering a group of virtually helpless Leashed Dogs whose owners are dead or vanished, Lucky finds himself drawn against his will into the post of Alpha Dog, the leader of the pack.
The Leashed Dogs are pretty helpless at first, having lost their abilities to live on their own by complete devotion to, and reliance on, their human owners. Unable to simply abandon these dogs to a sticky end, Lucky begins to work to awaken and reinforce their inner qualities of self-reliance. Assuring himself that it’s only for a little while, through a series of trials and dangers in the ruined city, Lucky continues to postpone his departure until the book’s end. While getting ready to return to a solitary life, Lucky realizes that the life of a Lone Dog is an incomplete one, just as the position of a Leashed Dog is an incomplete one. The Pack Dog life, with a group of individuals sharing, working for the common good, and taking care of each other combines the good points of the Lone Dog and the Leashed Dog.
This is the moral message of the book, and though a simple one, is worth communicating to the readers: don’t just think of yourself; don’t just let everyone do everything for you, combine self-reliance with care for others. There are enough plot twists and turns to keep the reader hooked: what happened to the humans? What are the strange beings in yellow suits that seem to be sampling the air? The destruction seems too big to just an earthquake (ok, Big Growl), but what was it?
The reader who enjoys this book will doubtless find the answers in the rest of the books in the series.
- Lucky regards with disdain the dogs that have made their homes with human masters and come to love and depend upon them as dogs who are not fully dogs, but who are handicapped by their devotion to their human owners. Is this justified? Or does he feel this way because he had bad experiences in his human family?
- If the humans re-appear, should the Leashed Dogs return to them, or stay in their new pack of dogs?