________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 13 . . . . February 16, 2007


The Darwin Expedition. (Orca Soundings).

Diane Tullson.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2007.
100 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (cl.).
ISBN 978-1-55143-676-0 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55143-678-4 (cl.).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Dana Eagles-Daley.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

The Darwin Expedition, a novel for reluctant readers, has a number of attributes which appeal to its intended audience, namely snowboarding, friendship, moving out from the family home, the out of doors and danger. While the action is fairly fast-paced and the setting is beautiful, the story is somewhat repetitive, and there are some characteristics that would make the book inappropriate to use in some classrooms or to recommend for independent reading. 

     The Darwin Expedition appeals to reluctant readers not only in that it contains an interesting plot, but in that it also refers to age-appropriate previous knowledge. For example, the book title, The Darwin Expedition, refers to the idea of the survival of the fittest and the end or passing on of gene pools. Many reluctant reader novels tend to assume a low level of previous knowledge, and so this book is somewhat unique in the fact that it respects the reader’s intelligence while also making a blatant attempt to hang onto the reader’s possibly short attention span. 

     The friendship between Tej and Liam is a believable one. Tej is considered to be the more intelligent and dominant friend, while Liam is considered the less-intelligent and passive friend. Tej is driven and cannot wait to move out of their little town of Tremblay in order to go to post-secondary school and to leave small-town life behind. He wants Liam to come with him because he feels that, if Liam stays in Tremblay, Liam will make nothing of himself. The young men have known each other for a long time and genuinely care about each other a lot. However, the strain of becoming lost and facing a real threat of injury, hardship or even death causes old grievances to be aired. 

Tej says, …“You think you could have run faster than that bear?”

I say,… “ I don’t have to outrun the bear. It’s like Darwin said about the survival of the fastest. I just have to be faster than you.”

“Ha ha. Darwin’s theory is survival of the fittest, by the way, and mental fitness counts. Human beings didn’t get to the top of the food chain by being big and dumb.”

I wish that sounded more like a joke. “By big and dumb, you’re talking about the bear, right?”

He either ignores me or doesn’t hear me. Probably, he ignores me. (pp. 48-49)

     Later in the story, the action intensifies, and Liam and Tej must learn to trust and rely on each other in order to survive. The resolution of the story shows the reader that friends can disagree and even hurt each other, but they can remain friends nonetheless.  

     There are several elements in this book that prevent it from being completely recommended for reluctant readers. At times, the action in the book is interrupted by Liam’s thoughts or by fairly lengthy descriptions of the surrounding environment. While passages containing a character’s thoughts and the setting are common, there seem to be too many here considering the book is primarily intended for reluctant readers. In addition, there is perhaps more use of sarcasm in the book than would be expected in a book for struggling readers. Though these readers are often of average to superior intelligence and can comprehend any of the content of this book completely when presented orally, reluctant readers quickly become frustrated as they try to extract meaning from the words on a semantic level. Sarcasm requires more reading fluency.

     There are an number of inappropriate items in the story. For example, Tej tries to lift Liam’s spirits about their dilemma by saying, “tomorrow at this time, we’ll be in a Whistler hot tub with a couple of Aussie babes of questionable virtue.” (p. 17). As a teacher who decided to read this book to a class, I would be obligated to answer questions about this passage. Young people are undoubtedly exploring sexual questions and relationships, but it seems that this passage confirms stereotypical and sexist points of view. Later, when Tej and Liam are arguing, Tej refers to the size of Liam’s girlfriend’s “ass” (p. 50). This is another passage that seems to confirm negative attitudes toward women with which young men are already bombarded from any number of sources. This previous passage occurs a few pages after Tej tells Liam “to commit a physically impossible sex act.” (p. 34). When there are so many examples of writing available for reluctant readers that address the same relevant and important topics for young people, I would have difficulty recommending a book that seems to grab the reader’s attention with titillating words rather than solid action and writing.   

     Some of the book’s content is inappropriate or inaccessible for reluctant readers. There are drawn-out descriptions of thoughts and setting which rarely appeal to reluctant readers, and there are often uncommon words that would require a dictionary to decipher. Reluctant readers rarely rely on a dictionary, and, if they do, the enjoyment of reading is reduced for them. Furthermore, the inappropriate passages would require adult guidance in order to glean any learning, and it is likely that teachers and parents would be cautious of this type of shock-value writing. This story contains many strengths, such as interesting, believable characters and an intriguing plot-line, but the unfortunate use of ill-suited language makes it impossible to recommend. 

Recommended with reservations. 

Dana Eagles-Daley is a Special-Education teacher in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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