Review: Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez

Where to Buy:

Amazon, Bookshop


From the critically acclaimed author of “The Last of Her Kind”, a breakout novel that imagines the aftermath of pandemic flu, as seen through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy uncertain of his destiny.

His family’s sole survivor after a flu pandemic has killed large numbers of people worldwide, Cole Vining is lucky to have found refuge with the evangelical Pastor Wyatt and his wife in a small town in southern Indiana. As the world outside has grown increasingly anarchic, Salvation City has been spared much of the devastation, and its residents have renewed their preparations for the Rapture.

Grateful for the shelter and love of his foster family (and relieved to have been saved from the horrid, overrun orphanages that have sprung up around the country), Cole begins to form relationships within the larger community. But despite his affection for this place, he struggles with memories of the very different world in which he was reared. Is there room to love both Wyatt and his parents? Are they still his parents if they are no longer there? As others around him grow increasingly fixated on the hope of salvation and the new life to come through the imminent Rapture, Cole begins to conceive of a different future for himself, one in which his own dreams of heroism seem within reach.

Written in Sigrid Nunez’s deceptively simple style, “Salvation City” is a story of love, betrayal, and forgiveness, weaving the deeply affecting story of a young boy’s transformation with a profound meditation on the meaning of belief and heroism.


When Salvation City came out in 2010, I borrowed the book from the library and read the first quarter of it before it was due back. I remembered the title, the cover, the author, and that I had liked what I read, but nothing about it. When I found a used copy at Half Price Books, I decided it was time to get back into it. It’s about things that I love, post-apocalyptic worlds, small town religion, and of course it is set in Indiana. Even with all of these pluses, I am left feeling underwhelmed about the novel.

Salvation City is the coming-of-age story about Cole Vining, a thirteen year old who woke up after having a flu that is killing hundreds of thousands of people to learn that his mother and father had both died from this flu. He is an orphan until he is adopted by regionally popular preacher, PW and his wife, Tracy. Cole grows up knowing that they are doing their best within their system of beliefs and he does his best to follow their rules and fit into his new family. As he grows older, he has to come to terms about what his life means and what he plans to do with this future. In the novel, he sees that every adult is human and make mistakes. They let him down, and he realizes toward the end that his role models are not going to be the people who are gone or the people who are currently present in his life because they are all stuck in their own feelings and agendas.

This story is not one that I loved but I did not hate it either. I feel pretty lukewarm about the whole experience. I do like that Nunez wrote this novel in 2010 and did a pretty good job at predicting the way that America would deal with a pandemic ten years later. I saw a great deal of the same things that she described happening during the Covid lockdown, and it seems like she has a good pulse on the way that America and Americans think about things. Many of the characters are well-written and the scenes are very well constructed, but I did not feel much interest in any of them. The end result is an interesting book that will be easily forgettable. 

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