This is basically a survival story. Jess Cooper ends up in the Canadian wilderness with her survivalist dad after her mum dies in a car accident, and then SOMETHING VERY BAD happens to dad, their cabin burns down, and Jess has to find a way to get through many many months, including the winter, before she can have any hope of rescue. Add to that she is disabled due to her car accident injuries, and she is up against it. But she does have a very good dog.
The novel starts slowly: for a considerable portion I struggled to engage with Jess. She’s whiny, inconsiderate, not very interesting and basically quite annoying at first. The constant referencing to her pain and agony – sorry, because pain is after all subjective – but as someone with first hand experience of these kinds of injuries, I was just thinking, oh for God’s sake get on with it. Glass cuts clean for the most part; I lost part of my scalp, and still had windscreen glass working out of my head six weeks after a car accident – but you just get on with it. Glass wounds hurt at the time, but they heal pretty clean. And as for walking with foot drop, damaged tendons etc –my son had a serious spinal injury, all those symptoms and more. It’s hard to explain, but Jess seems so fussy and absorbed in her constant agony as not to be quite real. People in real ongoing pain don’t talk about it or even think about it that much, because that makes it worse. Real life pain is very boring. You learn to focus on other things. I feel vaguely resentful, that some authors believe foisting pain on their protagonists makes them more interesting. It somehow feels like an affectation.
Plus, later in the story Jess is sprinting around like a spring lamb. So the exercise did help: Dad was right. And her “disability” evaporates, or at least gets very much better.
Anyway – starting with the bad, moving on.
Some critics moaned about cruelty to animals: if you’re stuck in an icy wilderness, you hunt or die. And if you’re hunting for the first time, you’re not very good at it. So, it might be unpleasant, but it’s real.
The revenge aspect, which both blurb and early reviews indicate is a major driver, is scarcely mentioned, thankfully. Jess needs a plane to get out of there: bad men come with a plane; she can wait till spring with fingers crossed – or take the initiative and try to get away. She didn’t even go after the bad guys, actually, only the plane. Personally, I found that aspect refreshing and plausible. A sixteen year old taking on three gangsters would have been slightly far-fetched, and also unsatisfying in terms of natural justice. She barely knew her dad, as she keeps saying (although the little we do see is very engaging; one of the reasons Jess seems such a pill at first). But in the end it isn’t about revenge, it’s about survival, and that is far more realistic and satisfying.
I am a sucker for survival stories, and enjoyed that part of the story very much – though Jess does make a bit of a meal of everything at first, whinging about her incredible pain all the time. But it gets much better about halfway though, when she finally starts stepping up and getting on with it.
The writing is often poetic, and can strike the right emotional cord, but would do so more consistently if it didn’t spell out every nuance. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s actually very good, but the reflection and introspection sometimes felt over-written. Possibly a younger reader would appreciate that uber-detail, however.
The best thing about the story, of course, was Bo the dog. So, spoiler-free, the ending was not at all satisfactory. In a thriller way, it was well-worked out and resolved. In a human and emotional way, Jess is a sixteen year old alone in the world, in foster care with no family. But she is a different person to the whiner who started this journey: she is now self-reliant, strong, and determined: ultimately a solid if slightly bitter-sweet resolution.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.