Friday, April 11, 2008

writing antarctica

"The White Darkness," by Geraldine McCaughrean, is the story of Sym Wates, a 14-yr. old British girl, and her Uncle Victor, actually an honorary title, and their perilous journey across the Antarctica to find the legendary Symms's Hole, a portal to a hollow Earth.

When Sym was a child, her father was a business partner of Victor, and Victor's obsession with finding Symms's Hole became the father's own dream, to the point of giving over his life savings and property to help finance their future discovery expedition. Victor even persuaded her father to place Sym on a regular regimen of antibiotics, to ensure her health, and protect any inhabitants of Earth's interior against contamination when he would take her to explore the interior. This drug regimen has probably caused Sym's near-deafness, requiring her to wear hearing aids. Victor also sees to Sym's education in all things pertaining to Antarctica. It is during this lonely, introspective period that her reading leads her to converse with a Captain Lawrence Titus Oates, who perished ninety years before, on Scott's expedition to the South Pole. When Sym's father dies, Victor dupes Sym away from her mother to begin the portal search in Antarctica. He has enlisted the services of a Norwegian writer, who has located the probable location of Symms's Hole using satellite imagery, and who is accompanied by his son. Thus far Victor seems a somewhat sinister figure who seems to have an alarming interest in Sym. Is he for real about this expedition?

In Antarctica, the situation becomes even more bizarre. Victor manages to drug the other members of his sightseeing tour, and commandeers the tour's tracked vehicle to transport himself, Sym, the Norwegian and the son, in a mad dash across Antarctica to the reputed portal location. Without giving up too much of the story, it can be said that the writer and his son aren't who we thought them to be, and Victor becomes ever more possessed. It may only be because of her voluminous reading of the historical Antarctica expeditions and scientific lore that Sym is able to navigate and endure countless hardships. It is also a testament to McCaughrean's writing that she is able to spin a plot and give us characters that can absorb us in such a wasteland of nothingness. Worth a read.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

bolting from the Rez

Only Sherman Alexie could have written "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" and have carried along the reader so effortlessly, and intriguingly. It's not that a good writer couldn't imagine the hard situation and trapped circumstances described for life on the 'Rez,' but a non-Indian would probably encounter significant critical resistance to publishing such a story. So it's been a treat to have Alexi give us the 'Diary' with all its courage, and warts, and sorrows, and resilient hopes, of a boy who's been there, done that, and can talk of it in gallows humor, as well as with a great affection for the parents who tried their best to do the right thing by him.

The story gets underway with 'Junior,' or Arnold Spirit, nearing the end of his time in middle school on the Rez, and feeling like he's going to die soon if he doesn't get off the Rez. Alcoholism and unemployment are rampant, and life expectancy is mean and short. Junior conceives of attending high school off campus, at a nearby town called Reardon. Of course, this is going to be interpreted by his best friend, Rowdy, and most of the other boys on the Rez, as becoming a traitor. Regardless, he's too sensitive, and hungry for life, to let such worries dissuade him, and he makes the leap.

The boys at Reardon are at first skeptical about this kid from the Rez, but Junior has one good thing going for him. He's pretty good at basketball. And he manages to swallow his fears enough to give a good account of himself in a scuffle with one of the strapping big players on Reardon's team. Junior also acquires a serious crush on one of the Reardon girls, and it's good for a little humorous tension. Through it all he's still, of course, commuting back and forth to the Rez, where his audacity is gradually accepted by the other Indian youths. We continue to get a glimpse of existential life on the Rez, or the untimely demise of it, and we're glad that a promising boy has started his trip outward to more hopeful things.
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