The White Darkness, part 2

After attending the Picnic in the Park on the 4th of July, Jim and I went home to relax – so of course I pulled out Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness and spent the rest of the day reading.  It’s hardly a relaxing book, though – definitely a thriller of the best sort.  And I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.  For me, there are two obvious signs that I’ve read an excellent book:  1) I can’t put it down, and 2) I don’t cheat and read the ending first.  The White Darkness meets both criteria, and then some.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this book without giving away the plot or the ending, because this is a book that ALL of you should definitely read.  A quick summary, which really doesn’t begin to describe the book, is that Sym Wates is a British fourteen-year-old who has an obsession with Titus Oates, a man who died years earlier as part of Scott’s South Pole expedition.  Oates lives in her head, and serves as her friend, confidante, and chaste lover.  Needless to say, Sym’s obsession sets her apart from her peers, and causes her some social trauma.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.  The real bulk of the story occurs not in England, but in Antarctica, with action, drama, danger, bad guys, and Sym’s emerging sense of self.  Oates travels with her to Antarctica, providing one more layer to this intriguing story.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, since you really need to read this book.  But it’s not just the plot that makes this a great read; McCaughrean’s vividly descriptive writing style is what really blew me away.  For instance, this passage that describes their travel across a frozen Antarctic plain:

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the surface would change to sastrugi or a royal icing of frozen snow.  There would be sharp steps up, or one side of the van would lurch over a solidified snowdrift.  For the most part it was a shining lake of platinum puddled with mirror-bright patches of platelet-snowflakes – as if a billion sequins had been squandered over the ice.  Sometimes – the worst times – there would be a sharp step down, and my internal organs would cram together under my rib cage like sheep in a slaughterhouse, terrified.  (pp 158 – 159)

I love that image of the sheep in the slaughterhouse, and the way that McCaughrean’s words made me feel as though I was on this journey, too, in this frozen alien world that I’ve only ever seen in photos or film, but never experienced directly.  That’s no small feat of writing.

Needless to say, I’ll be suggesting to my teen book group that we read this one in the fall.  Hopefully they’ll be intrigued, but if they’re not, I may have to strong-arm them into reading this one; I know they’ll forgive me for the strong-arming once they’ve been sucked into the plot and pace of this terrific book.

2 thoughts on “The White Darkness, part 2”

  1. Thank you. That’s rather the reaction I was hoping for. (What author wouldn’t?) I’ve never been to Antarctica either, though I did feel as if I had by the time I’d finished writing it. I’d be fascinated to know what your teen group make of it. when it was up for the Carnegie Medal, and there was a website where young eaders could post their reactions, there was a wild split between those who said, “If I ever have to read such a boring book again I shall kill myself.” and those who really liked it.

  2. Ms. McCaughrean –
    Thank you for your comment! I’m clearly a fan of yours, so it’s thrilling to hear directly from you.
    I will definitely let you know what my teen book group thinks of the book. We’ll be reading and discussing it in September, and I will post an entry on our discussion.
    Also, my fifth grade book group and I discussed “Peter Pan in Scarlet” this past spring – the kids enjoyed it (though the girls liked it better than the boys, which surprised me). The language was a bit challenging for them, which to my mind is a good thing – always good to stretch your mind and your intellectual horizons.
    Thanks again for your comment!

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