This is my review of a novel written for teens: The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean. This is an award winning young adult novel about a girl who travels across the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica with her uncle.
The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean
Reviewed by Linda Jo Martin
Symone Wates, a 14-year-old nearly-deaf English girl, is a bit odd. Tragedy hits her family when her father sickens and dies. Symone, also called Sym, compensates for the loss of her father by developing an abnormal telepathic communication with “Titus” Oates, a deceased member of a doomed 1912 English expedition to the South Pole. Sym believes a 90-year age difference is acceptable and is grateful he’s in her life though it is only on a mental level.
Strange Uncle Victor likes Antarctica too
Her obsession with Antarctica is understandable as her Uncle Victor, who worked with her departed father, has been filling her head for years with information about the remote and intemperate continent.
She’s a sweet girl who idolizes Uncle Victor. She believes him to be an outstanding genius though he is not truly a blood relative. He came to the rescue of Sym and her mother after her father died, and even moved into their home to take care of them. When he comes up with prize tickets for a holiday in Paris, Sym’s mother reluctantly agrees to go, however at the train station she’s unable to find her own passport so Uncle Victor leaves her there and whisks Sym away to Paris to enjoy the holiday without her mother.
From there, things get worse, not better. Uncle Victor comes up with the idea of going on another vacation, this time to Antarctica, a continent both of them have obsessed over for years. When Sym insists that her mother be consulted Uncle Victor leaves the hotel to phone her then returns saying she approved. Next he destroys the cell phone. By this time Sym’s red flags are starting to go up, but she isn’t able to process them. She’s so convinced of her Uncle Victor’s perfection she is unable to realize there’s something terribly wrong with the way he’s behaving.
Author: Geraldine McCaughrean
The trip to Antarctica chills the reader as the situation goes downhill and the characters go south. This thrilling, nightmarish journey Sym takes with Victor is both fascinating and frightening. For anyone, it shows how warning signs can be ignored, denied, and misinterpreted until it is too late.
Set in the freezing expanse of a white continent most of us will never see, the novel provides readers with a vicarious experience of the Antarctic region. We stumble along with Sym and her co-characters as they experience terror, regret, fear, and shock. We want to shake Sym and yell at her to turn around and go home, but she can’t hear us; she’s nearly deaf.
The man in Symone’s head, “Titus” Oates, is not fictional. He is based on a historic character, a doomed member of Scott’s South Pole expedition. Oates died on March 16, 1912 when, realizing he could not survive the Antarctic weather, he stumbled out of his tent telling his companions, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was only 32, and his body was never found. The bodies of his three companions were found in the tent eight months later along with his diaries.
The White Darkness won the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association – an award for the most outstanding young adult novel of the year. It contains a few adult situations and is not recommended for young, naive children, but is fine for teens, and a favorite with many of them. It would be an excellent addition to a unit study on Antarctica for mature preteens and for teenagers.
I listened to The White Darkness as an audiobook recording – one I especially enjoyed. The readers, Ruth Sillers and Richard Morant, performed flawlessly. Ruth Sillers’ high, sweet voice was perfect in the role of Symone. Richard Morant took the role of Titus, speaking kindly, lovingly within Symone’s mind. It is unclear whether his presence there was a paranormal reality or a psychological anomaly, but whichever it was, the author’s skill in presenting the mental relationship between Symone and Titus made it believable as well as heart-wrenching.
Author Geraldine McCaughrean is a British author of more than 150 books, including many retellings of classics, for children. Her books prior to The White Darkness have won the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Prize, and the Whitbread Children’s Book Award.
The White Darkness was published by HarperTeen in 2007. I loved listening to this suspense novel, and believe it deserved the award it won. Of course it has also been a target of criticism.
One critic didn’t find the inner conversation between Sym and Titus to be believable, another thought she was just too abnormal to make a good protagonist, a third called into question the moral character of Titus Oates and the appropriateness of including him in a novel intended for teenagers.
Setting aside the final criticism, I can say I had no trouble identifying with the main character, I found her mental aberration believable, and I loved her story and the journey across Antarctica. I’d much rather read about it than be there! This is a novel I will carry in my heart for a long time.
The book covers and photo of Geraldine McCaughren are from Amazon.
The photos of Antarctica are from Pixabay.com / used via CC0 public domain license.