Book: Geraldine McCaughrean. The White Darkness. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Survival
Audience: Grades 7-12 (and up)
Read-Aloud: It’s so white!
Summary: The story follows 14 year old Sym Wates as she struggles to get through school after the recent death of her father. She is bullied for being deaf and a bit of a nerd who loves learning about the Antarctic, so she finds refuge in her imaginary friend Titus Oates who explored to the South Pole on the Scott expedition 90 years earlier. She is invited on a trip to Paris with her uncle, which transforms into an expedition to Antartica as her uncle tries to follow his own obsession with finding Symmes’s Hole (a rumored tunnel into the hollow part of Earth). Soon things go wrong, however, and Sym must survive with only her wits about her in one of the harshest environs on Earth.
Themes: The largest theme in this novel is that of finding one’s self and one’s place in the world. Throughout her journey Sym is continually ruminating about who she is and how she could possibly fit into her steadily crumbling world. She consistently converses with Titus in an effort to comfort herself and to escape the troubles that she faces, as well as to ask him for help and advice to get her through her troubles. While Titus helps her cope and offers solutions, he ultimately leaves the ending decisions up to Sym so that she can grow more as a person.
Another major theme is that of survival. Sym constantly has to survive harsh ordeals throughout the novel, varying from the deadly landscape of the Antarctic to the subtle manipulations of her steadily maddening uncle. Through all of these trials and tribulations she grows more and more and realizes that she can be a valuable and respected person in a landscape where ignorance can kill a person with the drop of a hat.
Connections: This novel would be great with other survival novels such as The Life of Pi that deal with individuals struggling to live against all odds with only their wits to tip them their way. One could either do a units based around polar survival novels, or as I suggested, survival novels in general. By doing this, an education could appeal to the various palates that could be found throughout their classroom.
Reactions: I would recommend this book for use in classrooms solely based on the visual descriptions depicted in the novel and the various historical and other researches the author did to keep the novel as realistic as possible. Reading this really made me feel as if I was right there in the Antarctic with Sym’s plethora of knowledge stuck fast in my brain. I feel that for survival novels especially, that it is important for the author to do good research on the survival local and this author did a great job of it.
Reception: One review at guardian.co.uk said that, “There are many other elements in this novel, and the language is extraordinary. The narrative has elements of fairytale and legend. It’s also a rip-roaring adventure yarn. McCaughrean can do funny and moving and quirky. The best thing of all, though, is her understanding of the kind of child who lives mostly in her own head.”
Another reviewer at teenreads.com talks about some of the historical background, “The juxtaposition of Sym’s adventure next to the Scott expedition — which McCaughrean wisely summarizes in an appendix at the end of the book — asks if death is too high a price to pay for discovery. The irony of the Scott expedition was that, as they chose to push on to discover the South Pole knowing they were unlikely to return, another explorer, Roald Almundsen, already had beaten them to the Pole by two weeks and lived to tell the tale. Had the Scott expedition survived, they would not have been the first to reach the Pole. They found more notoriety through death than they would have in life.”