The protagonist of a story is the main character who traditionally undergoes some sort of change. He or she must usually overcome some opposing force. The protagonist of this novel is Randy Bragg. His actions in the difficult days following the nuclear attack are responsible for the survival of the little community of neighbors linked by the artesian well system and, to a great extent, the survival of Fort Repose. Although he seems entirely unsuited to the task before "The Day", his sense of survival brings out qualities of leadership and creativeness that he did not know he had. Having little trust of power and those who wield it, he becomes a careful leader with the well-being of his community foremost in his mind.
The antagonist of a story is the character that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. Plots may have multiple antagonists that work together to oppose the main character. It would be easy to label the Soviets as the antagonists of the novel. It is, after all, the Soviets who launched the nuclear war. But no Soviet soldier or leader ever appears in the novel and the Soviets are only mentioned occasionally. The real antagonist is not a “who” but a “what” - the forces of decline and decay that follow the complete breakdown of government, business, finance, transportation, and the economy.
In the aftermath of "The Day", money becomes worthless, so a barter economy develops to replace the money economy. Law enforcement ceases, allowing highwaymen and local thugs to roam the roads and to attack isolated homes. Being completely dependent now on the bounty of nature for food, the people of the town are severely handicapped during the normal lulls of the growing season and the shifting moods of Nature. Randy’s task is to overcome these problems or to figure out how to live with them, given that technology has just retreated a hundred years.
The climax of a plot is the major turning point that allows the protagonist to resolve the conflict. One climax of this novel occurs early in the book, in chapter 5, with the nuclear attack on the U.S. by the Soviet Union. This, and the to-beexpected loss of water, electricity, gasoline, communications, and a money-based economy set the stage for the question of who will survive and how. The novel builds to this climax with the seemingly unrelated story of Peewee Cobb, the junior fighter pilot who, against orders, pursues a Soviet fighter plane into Syrian airspace and launches a rocket to bring down the Soviet plane.
The missile, instead of hitting the Soviet plane, strikes a Soviet naval station in Syria, causing massive damage. This incident, while small, is the match that ignites the war. Pat Frank skillfully intertwines this incident and others to build the suspense: will the Soviets attack or not? We already know they will, but what starts it? Pat Frank’s broader question is not who wins the war (no one really wins a nuclear war) but how does civilization rebuild itself?
A second climax occurs near the end of the novel in chapter 11 when Randy and his newly formed protection force confront a gang of murderous highwaymen. Since "The Day", Randy has gradually built a functioning community despite the lack of the most basic goods and services. With the stockpiles of gasoline and ammunition nearly gone, the arrival of the highwaymen poses a grave threat to the community. Their attack on Dr. Gunn, their only physician, is the last straw. Randy and the citizens of Fort Repose have built a reasonably functioning community in a devastated area. Will it now collapse from unchecked lawlessness?
The outcome of both climaxes is essentially the same - the community survives. Rather worse for the wear, perhaps, but they survive. After the nuclear attack on the U.S., Florida is designated a Contaminated Zone. It is forbidden for people to enter a Contaminated Zone, and those leaving one must be examined at checkpoints. All of the nearby cities (Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, etc.) are destroyed and this effectively cuts off Fort Repose from the outside world.
They live in an island of safety surrounded by a sea of radioactive devastation. Nothing comes in, and nothing goes out. This brings out the best in the good people of Fort Repose, and they figure out how to rebuild some semblance of civilization from whatever they can salvage. The disaster also brings out the worst in people, and part of the community’s problem is figuring out how to deal with those elements of society.
The rebuilding proceeded relatively well until the arrival of the highwaymen. Their arrival could not have had worse timing. The town’s stockpiles of gasoline are almost gone, and any action against the highwaymen will exhaust whatever remains. It is also understood that more will follow this gang. Randy decides that the highwaymen must be captured alive and publicly hanged - this, he hopes, will act as a deterrent to future marauders. The plan succeeds, but the novel ends shortly after this incident and we are left to wonder whether this action had its intended long-term effects.
In the end, Paul Hart arrives and offers them relocation to a clear area, but they decline his offer. They choose, instead, to remain and rebuild civilization where they are.