McCaughrean, Geraldine. The White Darkness. Harper Teen, 2005. 373p. Grades 7 and up. Realistic Fiction. (2008 Printz Award).
Shy and withdrawn, Symone “Sym” Wates spends most of her time mentally conversing with her imaginary friend and alter ego, Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the members of Robert Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica, and imagining what it would be like to explore the vast white darkness of the South Pole. She gets an unexpected surprise when her deceased father’s business partner, Victor Briggs (known to Sym as Uncle Victor), announces that he is taking her first to Paris and then on to an Antarctic tourist expedition. Unbeknownst to Sym, Uncle Victor is maniacally obsessed with the theories of John Symmes and plans on sacrificing her to his psychotic beliefs on the treacherous terrain of Antarctica. Sym’s eventual escape from Uncle Victor and her desperate journey out of the frozen frontier are fueled by the truth about her childhood and the “companionship” of Captain Oates, forcing both the narrator and the reader to determine the fine line between reality and madness.
Thoughts- When I finished this book, I actually said to myself, “What the hell just happened? That was NOT the book I expected it to be.” For one thing, I expected it to be boring. I mean, a girl and her uncle in Antarctica? SNOOZE. For another, I thought I’d have a nice, normal narrator who was totally trustworthy. And I thought it would be slow. I’m not really sure why these were my expectations for The White Darkness, but they were…and they were all completely blown to smithereens. Turns out, it’s not a boring book at all—in fact, Antarctica is totally fascinating. Deadly, completely inhospitable, and immense, the continent itself is an actual, pivotal character in the book, and it’s SO mesmerizing. Also, Sym? She’s possibly one of the most untrustworthy narrators I’ve ever encountered…between her and Cameron Young from Going Bovine, it would be a toss-up as to who had the more vivid hallucinations. Cameron hallucinates his cross-country road trip, but Sym has been talking to Titus for YEARS. As for the pacing, The White Darkness rips along at breakneck speed and expects its readers to follow along or get left behind in the snow.
I adored this book and it totally took me by surprise. Sym, Uncle Victor, and the Bruchs are all such vivid characters and the setting so unique that it probably could have been even less tightly plotted and I still would have been totally on board with McCaughrean. I’ve seen the now-familiar “too hard, not accessible, not appealing to teen readers” complaint attached to this book, but I have a hard time believing that readers who gave The White Darkness a chance wouldn’t completely entranced by it. I think it would be an amazing classroom read (I love to teach about untrustworthy narrators!) and is currently at the top of my recommendations list.