Monday, February 18, 2008

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean has won just about every award for children's books there is except the Newbery. She was also given the honor of being selected to write the official sequel to Peter Pan, Peter Pan in Scarlet. This year she was awarded the Printz for The White Darkness, a book I almost gave up on after four chapters. I am so glad I didn't. In fact, after chapter five, the book never left my hands. I finished it in one sitting (it helped to be bed ridden with a cold at the time).
This is the story of an extremely plucky fourteen year old girl, Sym. She has an obsession with Antartica encouraged by her "uncle" Victor, who has plied her with books and documentaries on the "The Ice" since she was a child. Sym is particularly mesmerized by the story of the doomed 1910 British expedition of Captain Scott. This is not necessarily so outlandish. It is a well known story to British school children. Personally, while feeling sorry for the men who all perished in the attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, I have little admiration for their sacrifice. What was supposed to be first and foremost a scientific expedition became a pride-fueled race to plant a British flag on the frozen wastes before a rival Norwegian could claim the honor. Scott was accompanied by a man named Captain Laurence "Titus" Oates, who is attributed with the famous line, "I'm going just going outside and may be sometime," as he exited to his death. Oates was heralded as a hero; he was very ill and was slowing down the party, so he committed suicide in order that his teammates could go on without him.
Sym has taken the heroic figure of Oates and combined him with the handsome figure of the actor who portrayed him to create an imaginary friend who fills the emptiness in her heart left by her father's messy death and her own social awkwardness. Oates fills the pages of McCaughrean's book, too and it is a tribute to her skill as a writer that he is as real to us as he is to Sym. In fact, he and Sym end up being the only real characters in a novel full of people who are not who they say.
Uncle Victor, for me, was a phony the minute he stepped in to the story and the clumsy bait and switch of the first two chapters was what nearly had me giving up. Victor gives an innocent enough invitation to a free weekend in Paris to Sym and her mother, but mother discovers her passport is missing just as the train doors close, and Victor and Sym leave without her. In Paris, however, Victor is not interested in any of the usual sights and suggests they travel on, "I thought somewhere a bit farther afield. A jaunt. Now that we're here. What say?" His jaunt turns out to be a trip to Antartica on a package tour for the thrill-seeking rich--only Victor is seeking something more than a thrill and Sym is part of his delusional and dangerous plan. After Victor drugs the entire tour group, blows up an aeroplane, and steals an all-terrain vehicle, Sym finds herself heading on to the Ross Ice Shelf, "Did you know: Some of the ice is half a mile thick? Except where it isn't". In the vehicle with them is a Norweigen filmmaker and his son. Except that they aren't.
What follows is a series of life-threatening and breathtaking adventures. Once Victor starts the engine and heads out in to the unknown, there is no way you can put this book down until the ride is over two hundred and twenty pages later. McCaughrean leads us in to the cold, blinding beauty of Antartica and we experience through Sym's mesmerized gaze, "the immensity of wrinkled whiteness stretching east to the edge of forever".
Just FYI: There are a couple of veiled references to sex in the book. Sym wonders what it would have been like to make love to Oates and Sym is worried about one of her friends who claims to have met a thirty-year old man on the internet.

1 comment:

Susan said...

This is an author I'd like to read. Thank you for the information.