Monday, December 15, 2008

White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean: Imaginary Friends

White Darkness, Geraldine McCaughrean (2007).
NY: Harper Tempest. ISBN: 0060890355
Prinz Winner, 2008

What do you get when you mix a crazy man, Antarctica, imaginary friends, and a teenage girl? Oh, you get an award winning coming of age story about surviving the unsurvivable for YA's, that's what you get. Sym, short of Symmone, is a partially deaf, precocious 14 year old English school girl. Her late father's business partner, Uncle Victor, has up and spirited her away on her dream vacation: a no-holds barred trip to Antarctica. Sym, you see, has a slight, no, make that major life-long obsession with "The Ice," as those cool enough to hang out there call it (teehee! Inadvertant pun). She is so obsessed with The Ice that her imaginary friend manifests as Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, one of the ill fated members of Scott's death march on The Ice. Yes, you read that correctly, Sym is 14, not 4, and has an imaginary-dead-guy-bff. And yeah, she's totally 14 because she has a pseudo-crush on said imaginary-dead-guy-bff. But bear with, all two of you reading this, and/or White Darkness, because despite sounding totally bizzare, this is actually a great book.

Sym is not just super excited about her trip, she is super naïve, and while she thinks about how it's probably shady her Uncle Victor hasn't allowed contact with her mom, or how it's not the greatest idea to miss a month of school, she doesn't dwell too much on this. She is less than impressed by her fellow travelers, barring a cute Norwegian boy named Sigurd, who is accompanying his famous movie director father on a scouting trip. Though lame they may be, in the company of rational and sane adults Uncle Victor's halo starts to tarnish. Sym is forced to begin admitting to herself that Uncle Victor might be a tad off, perhaps a tad insane, especially after he claims to be on The Ice to discover Symm's Hole, the purported gaping hole that leads to another world housed inside this one, matrushka doll styles. Of course, this relevation doesn't dawn fully on Sym until after Uncle Victor dopes the whole camp and sets off with Sym, Sigurd, and Sigurd's dad in a stolen Antarctica Hummer. Also, Titus, except he's imaginary; also, dead. Sym is forced into the fight for her life, stuck between wanting to believe her beloved Uncle Victor and knowing, as one obsessed with The Ice does, that this is a death march he's dragged them onto, much like the one Scott dragged Titus on.

While White Darkness takes a bit of getting used to, I enjoyed it, finding myself hooked by adrenaline driven plot, revealed character motivations, and my desire to simultantaneously shake some sense into and cheer Sym on. Sym narrates, but often alternates between narrating, having conversations with her imaginary friend Titus (denoted with italics), and having flashbacks. At certain points, the narrative styles meld, blending the line between reality, imagination, and hallucination, which lends an air of tense credibility to this survival of the fittest tale. Moreover, the changes in voice help the reader (via Sym) become less trusting and more cynical, savvy, and finally, driven to survive at all costs. Lastly, props to McCaughrean for including a synopsis of the Scott expedition in the back of the book. It gives credence to this tale by validating Titus' story and helping the reader see the parallels between his story and Sym's.

Best for: Because the narrative style is quite different, I recommend this book for grades 9 and up. While I'd recommend this book to boys and girls above the ninth grade, something about the cover screams girl. It's too bad, because this is a great survival story that has the appeal to attract boys as well.

Book talk hook: I'd sell this as a straight adventure story. I'd perhaps have kids raise their hands to see who had been in the coldest atmosphere (Obviously I'd win. Thanks, Canada), and then describe the conditions on The Ice. I'd then go on to ask how many of them would go on an all expenses paid trip to Antarctica, followed by who would go if their "Uncle" hadn't told their mother? How about if you knew he'd stolen her passport so she couldn't go? Etc. etc, leading to a brief synopsis with the point being "Well, Sym did this. Does she survive?"

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