I read this book many many times as ~ten to twelve year old in the late eighties.
My copy was donated to some charity at the age of thirteen by my very helpful sister (including my cherished copy of the Hobbit!). I've thought back to this book many times over the years and can remember the plot and characters quite well but have been unable to remember the title or figure it out with extensive googling.

Here is the plot briefly - If anyone can tell me the name of the book I would be in your debt!

The book starts with a young girl about 8-10 years old who has a fairly unpleasant mother who is in her late teens at most. The mother repeatedly tells the child she was only born so that she would be given a room to live in as opposed to a dormitory. Food costs, water costs - the child is constantly hungry. The only food available is some form of deep fried cabbage.

The kid goes to a school - this is run by computer and there is very little in the way of schooling - I don't think reading is taught -just he bare minimum social programming to get a kid to function in this horrible society.

There is a boy in the class - called Michael I think, who is a bit weird.

At this point you begin to realise that everything is underground - only that the inhabitants have no concept of the surface.

This kid Michael claims to be from the surface and describes it as a land of milk and honey essentially. He was messing around exploring and fell into a mine shaft and after many days of going deeper and deeper he got scooped up and sent to school.

They decide to escape.

At this point from the description of the tunnels that they are in you suspect that the tunnels go all the way round the circumference of the earth. This isn't made explicit.

They spend days going up and think they are being followed. I'm a bit hazy on the next bit but they make it to the surface and just manage to escape being chased by some adult guy.

They get to the surface and everything is very nice, but people are living in domes as they think that the outside is poisonous, lots of food and all the conveniences of a future utopia. Only the people at the top have no idea that there are billions of people living beneath them.

The kids get picked up by the secret police who have been onto them for a while. They get given an orange as a test. Michael knows what it is and peels and eats it. the girl is suspicious at first then ravenously eats the whole thing, peel and all - displaying that Michael is a true surface dweller and that the girl is an underground person.

They get shoved out of the front door so as to not upset the balance of society and told to scram (or they escape-i may have forgotten that bit).

They tramp overground for a few days and realise that they are still being followed by the adult tramp guy from underground. It turns out that he was secret police and meant to be keeping an eye on Michael, but he was so fed up with life that he tried to escape also.

In any event the three of them eventually get to Michael's home village/town where a few people are still living normally they way we do.

The end.

So any bright ideas?

  • 1
    Looks like the question was answered - but I just had to chime in here because I read a book that sounds VERY similar but was REALLY good, so I'll have to check out "THis time of darkness"! Anyways, the book is called "The City of Ember" and also has some sequels, the 2nd one "the people of sparks" is a great follow up, doesn't quite hit the mark of the first one but a very rewarding read. The book is very simple, and the writing is very simple, but there's something about the story and characters that really struck a cord with me. Cheers! Here's the link to amazon: amazon.com/City-
    – Luke Brog
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 12:01
  • @LukeBrog There is a movie rendition of "City of Ember", kind of nice but a bit juvenile.
    – KalleMP
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 12:47
  • Although this probably should be the ultimate dupe target - the q/a here is a lot more fleshed out here than on either of the others
    – fez
    Commented Apr 5 at 8:16

1 Answer 1


This Time of Darkness by Helen Mary Hoover

The only thing that doesn't fit is that the boy is called Axel, not Michael. EDIT: in fact it turns out at the end that his real name is Michael, so it fits perfectly (thanks to Buzz for telling me this).

From Goodreads:

Eleven-year-old Amy lives in a decaying underground city. Ignored by her mother and under surveillance by authorities because she can read, Amy reluctantly finds herself befriending Axel, a strange boy who claims to have come from a mythical place called Outside.

Quoting from some of the reviews there (emphasis mine):

Using characters' own observations and vivid memories, Hoover paints a picture of a cramped, stifling, stinking city where children are taught by computer in classrooms that hold a thousand students, where 15-year-olds get pregnant to earn an "apartment"--a 15-by-15 room--of their own, where the few open spaces have steadily been filled in to house the relentlessly growing population, where there are no jobs but factory labor, and where no one learns to read. The 11-year-old heroine, Amy, is already under pressure from her mother to move out to the dormitories so her mother can have more space and privacy. As a kid in the 80's, I'd never seen anything like it.


This Time Of Darkness is about a young girl named Amy who lives in an enormous city of the far future, who has never seen the outside world. She has learned about it by teaching herself to read. One day, a boy named Axel reveals to her that not only has he seen the outside, but that he is from there. And so they decide to escape.

See also the following two previous questions which turned out to be this book:

  • 1
    That's the book, for sure. I recognized it immediately. And it turns out at the end of the story that the boy's name was originally Michael (but it had been changed to Axel).
    – Buzz
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 1:40
  • @Buzz Thanks; edited in.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 1:45
  • 4
    Legendary guys, so happy! On order from Amazon - the cover is exactly how I remembered it. Brilliant. I'll try and help some one else! Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 8:21

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