Thursday, August 17, 2006
Alvin lives in Washington D. C. with his overprotective mother and loving, comforting grandmother. He is feeling strangled by their anxiety, care and protection, and when a school assignment sends him looking for a hero to research he turns to Matthew Henson; African American, Arctic explorer and North Pole discoverer.
After reading all the books he can find on Matthew Henson in the library he is enchanted by Henson's description of the Arctic's "fierce beauty". Drug gangs are recruiting him and the other kids are mocking him as a mamma's boy, so he decides to take off and travel north, following Henson's trail and conducting what his teacher calls "primary research". He is determined to see it for himself and seek out Henson's living descendents.
One of the best parts of this book is that although he makes it to the Arctic circle by miraculous good luck, through a series of mishaps and misfortunes, the story is still believable and feels grounded in real life. He gets hungry, gets stuck locked in a boxcar and nearly freezes to death, is afraid and lonely, but also manages to make friends and find kind and wise companions. I like the way race is a part of this story, both in his quest for identity and his encounters with adults who have learned to survive and thrive in spite of the racism they face. Alvin finds similarity between the stark threats of city life and the harshness of the frozen wasteland in the Arctic. He respects the finely tuned attention needed to survive in landscapes where one small mistake means death. He longs to learn the skills necessary to create beauty and nurture community, and he is willing to put everything into his quest to test his gifts and excel. Two of his greatest tools for the journey are his love of music and his intuition for connection in community. These are great gifts to the reader as well.
Donna Jo Napoli came to visit our school a few years ago, and we have most of her books for children and young people in our school library. She is charming and did a beautiful job speaking with our students. Her visit inspired a lot of enthusiastic conversations about reading and writing as craft. I found many of her retold fairy tales to be overly sexualized and not appropriate for children under 12, but they are all beautifully written and full of insight. North is one of the best of the bunch.