by Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins, 2008. Printz Honor Book, 2009. Library copy. Living in an alternate world 150 years ago, Mau is a boy in the midst of his isolated stay on the Boy's Island, trying to complete the survival tasks that will make him a man. With the help of one clue carved into the trunk of an huge tree, which says "Men Help Other Men", and an ax left there by the men in his family, Mau manages to carve himself a canoe and begin the return journey. Unfortunately a huge earthquake causes an enormous tsunami to overtake his island home, destroying his village and killing every other member of his community. He is the sole survivor. In his blinding grief and confusion he begins the dreadful task of burying the bodies of everyone he knows and loves, by dropping them into the sea so that their souls can become dolphins.
He soon discovers that there is one other person on the island. A young British girl has survived the crash of a sailing ship that was smashed into the island's valley rain forest by the tsunami. She has been raised as a lady and never allowed learn anything practical. She is also in line for the throne, although she doesn't know how close that responsibility has come. She calls herself Daphne and quickly sheds her ignorance for the chance to learn what is useful. He one strength is that she is intelligent and her father has indulged her curiosity by training her to think scientifically. In her new environment, outside the influence of her dowager grandmother, she begins to flourish.
Together these two begin to develop a friendship, learning each other's language and contributing to finding fire, food, fresh water and shelter. Gradually more people come to the island, looking for survivors and community strength. Mau hears the voices of his ancient Grandfathers demanding that he re-establish the "god stones", sing the traditional mystical songs, and feed them beer. He rages against them, questioning the gods on why such tragedy has happened to him and his loved ones. Because he has not completed the welcoming home ceremony with his people he has not yet become a man. He feels himself caught in the in-between stage, like a hermit crab moving to a new shell that is interrupted and left stranded. His confusion and turmoil opens for him the possibility of questioning the wisdom and ways of the past. As the book trailer states, "When much is taken, something is returned."
These two young people find their strengths in their creative, thoughtful, courageous responses to the challenge of survival and rebuilding their world. Key to their success is the willingness to discard what doesn't make sense to them from the old ways. They are also at an advantage because they both have a deeply held dedication to valuing and protecting the life of other people. They are kind and honest and willing to risk their own safety in order to protect and nourish others. Mau goes to extreme lengths to procure milk from a wild pig in order to keep a starving infant alive. Daphne chews dried beef jerky to feed to a toothless old woman, who turns out to be a wise woman with the spiritual and medical knowledge to bring Mau back from the dead.
The really wonderful thing about this book, other than it's cleverness and sharp wit, is the way goodness, kindness, and faith triumph over the blind cruelty of nature, the wickedness of pirates, and the terror of darkness and ignorance.
Pratchett is a well known author of the Diskworld series, with over 25 books to his credit. Nation is not part of this series. He was recently given knighthood by the queen of England, and also has just announced that he suffers from early onset Alzheimer's disease. Nation has been adapted for the stage. This is my first Pratchett novel and I am looking forward to reading more. Highly recommended for young adults and adults that enjoy fantasy and science fiction.