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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The White Darkness," "A Coyote's in the House"


"The White Darkness," Geraldine McCaughrean, Oxford University Press; 2005; 264 pp.

"A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us" -- Franz Kafka

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Of course, what Franz Kafka was talking about was not literally a frozen sea. His "frozen sea" is merely a symbol for our inability to feel and to be moved. Kafka felt that good books should make us feel again. When author Geraldine McCaughrean heard these words by Kafka at a lecture on writing, she took them to heart. The wonderful result: "The White Darkness."

In this astounding novel, 14-year-old Symone is whisked off in the middle of her school exams by her uncle Victor, who promises her a trip to Paris, but then takes her to the one place she's always dreamt of -- beyond Paris or anywhere else -- Antarctica. She finds herself in an externalized version of Kafka's "frozen sea" -- emerald ice floes and glaciers, avalanches and blizzards -- the most hostile place on Earth.

At first, Symone embraces the impossible whiteness of Antarctica. For her, it seems to suggest the possibility of happiness at last. Growing up has not been easy for her. Her father never approved of her, and before he died, he lost his mind and could not even remember who she was. She's a misfit at school, not just because she's partially deaf, but also because she's not pushing and jostling to discover boys, like the rest of her classmates. She's rather used to being alone, so Antarctica doesn't make her feel lonely; it makes her feel bigger.

It helps that she has an imaginary friend, her only friend, really: Captain Titus Oates who died trying to reach the South Pole in 1911. Symone has grown up reading about the poles, about borealises, about penguins and polar bears, and yes, Titus.

The author has never really been to Antarctica, but she blends researched facts with imagination and eloquence to create a place that is heartbreakingly beautiful. "Antarctica doesn't need anyone's admiration so why should it go to the trouble of being so beautiful? Of rimming ice caves with emerald green and turquoise? Of pumping vuggy ice full of rhinestones."

Then Symone stumbles upon Uncle Victor's crazy plan for them and the real reason why she's been brought to Antarctica. Together, they retrace Titus' path to the South Pole -- battling fatigue and frostbite; struggling to protect their eyes from being burnt by the snow's glare; straddling crevasses in a Hagglund vehicle; and sleeping through squalls so violent you can scarcely hear yourself think. The mesmerizing beauty of Antarctica slowly gives way to a "white darkness," a "life in negative" where nothing can survive. As Symone's body begins to suffer and her mind plays tricks on her, she must come to grips with the truth -- about her father, her uncle, even about Titus and herself.

Even as a fun trip to Antarctica turns tragic, McCaughrean' s eloquence never fades. Symone's body-heat peels off "like gold leaf off the Happy Prince"; a "blizzard of sleep" overcomes her; her blistering skin makes her look like a "public monument pocked by air pollution"; and she burns calories "like it's Bonfire Night."

This is what Simone says about human passion: "People talk about it being hot -- boys being hot, love being hot. But it's more like a blizzard, really. Whiteout. Or a kind of madness."

Who can help but be fascinated by a wilderness that is almost beyond the reaches of human imagination? But "The White Darkness" is also an examination of the human will to survive. What actually keeps us alive and going? McCaughrean's searing account of survival plumbs the depths of the human soul and scours the length and breadth of Antartica in its search for answers.

And like Titus Oates, readers, too, must make both journeys, if only to break the frozen sea that Kafka was talking about.

Note: For teens 14 years and above.

"A Coyote's in the House," Elmore Leonard, Puffin; 2004; 148 pp.

There's a new dawg on the block, or at least, in the house. Antwan isn't a real dog; he's a coyote. He likes hanging with the pack in the Hollywood Hills of California, flirting with the "sisters" and crunching up mice and rabbits, even cats and little dogs (not to be cruel but because they're, as Antwan puts it, "on the coyote food list, okay to eat.").

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The leader of the Howling Diablos gang, Antwan saves all his contempt for the "homies," dogs who could have been running free like the coyotes but have sold out to humans instead.

But being a dog is easier than it looks, as Antwan finds out when he switches places with a German shepherd called Buddy. Buddy was once a Hollywood star, but now that he's over the hill, he's wondering what it would be like to live life as a coyote. But before Buddy can take off into the wild, Antwan must be housebroken so that he can pass off as a dog.

So Antwan learns how to dodge vases instead of snakes; to eat out of a bowl instead of snuffling through the garbage; and to sit when he's told to sit and stay when he's told to stay. It's the hardest thing ever for a cool coyote to play a dumb dog, but there's the added attraction of Miss Betty, the prettiest poodle he's ever seen, not to mention the pure joy of tricking humans into believing he's a pooch.

This is as close as it gets to walking in a coyote's shoes -- and author Leonard gives you a not-so-flattering glimpse of humans and their ways, whether they're the sort who keep dogs or the sort who go out shooting coyotes.

Antwan's edgy, streetwise voice exudes attitude as he pokes fun at the dog-shampoo, tinned-food world of his cousins. The only downside is that Antwan's colloquial manner gets a little hard to follow at times and slows down the reading.

Plus, there are points when the book gets too sassy for itself. Giving animals human characteristics is a common way for children's authors to present life from what is assumed to be their point of view, but it gets a little tiresome when the animals sound too sassy to be, well, animals.

Antwan sounds like a rapper; Miss Betty like a starlet; and Buddy like an actor past his prime. My feeling is that something doesn't add up when Antwan and his friends cock a snook at humans -- all the while thinking and talking too much like them.

Note: For children 12 to 14 years.



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