CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 5. . . .October 24, 2008
Winner of the 2001 Governor General Literary Award for Children's Literature for Dust and author of novels for young readers, Slade, in Jolted, introduces readers to another unique protagonist in 14-year-old Newton, the "last male heir of the Starker line," a family famous for attracting lightning strikes that have killed all but Newton and his cantankerous centenarian great-grandmother. After his mother's death (by lightning of course), Newton decides to leave his lightning-proofed home in Snohomish, Washington, and enroll at the Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival located in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the city where his great-grandmother Enid resides. Armed with "Newton's Rules for Survival," 21 in total, Newton resolves to learn survival techniques and avoid the "lightning bolt that has [his] name on it." He embraces his studies enthusiastically, committed to the school motto, "Survival Through Fierce Intelligence" and determined to see his name on the bronze plaque in the Hall of Heroes for highest marks in his ninth grade group of 52.
However, obstacles, quite aside from the constant threat of lightning, litter his path from the outset. At opening assembly someone lobs a pebble at his kilt buckle that unsnaps and drops his kilt, thereby exposing Newton's bright green undershorts and triggering hilarious laughter, especially from a tall Asian girl, Violet, who, he is convinced, committed the prank. On the plus side, "part Scottish. And part Mi'kmaq, and African-American" fantasy writer, Jacob, comes to his rescue, and a friendship is born although Newton's mother had urged a "no friends for Starkers'" policy. Despite the usual adjustments to life at a boarding school, Newton retains his quirky sense of humour and remains optimistic even after witnessing great-grandmother Enid struck by a lightning bolt that missed him thanks to her intervention, a fight with Violet that lands him in the infirmary, KP duty punishment for fighting, the teasing of his classmates, and his own fears and insecurities. Hoping to become a chef, Newton plans a special dish for the Culinary Arts class competition, but first he contacts a French chef friend to order truffles. Newton's shaky French results in his receiving not only a jar of truffles, but also a poodle-sized "tiny, iridescently pink" truffle-hunting piglet that seems impervious to his static electricity and becomes his constant companion and helper.
In spite of some setbacks, Newton succeeds in scoring the highest marks for his "truffle and gopher quiche" and confidently embarks on the first quarter Outdoor Expedition to Cypress Hills Provincial Park, a 48-hour test of the student's survival skills in the wild. Inevitably, difficulties complicate his quest for the talisman, but he succeeds in conquering his fears, surviving a lightning attack, and making another friend.
Slade presents an appealing albeit out of the ordinary protagonist and some quirky secondary characters. Part coming of age tale, part adventure, part fantastical fiction, Jolted defies genre classification. The entertaining plot moves along smartly as Newton struggles to adjust to his environment and conquer his "electric" demons. Slade casually inserts chapters with excerpts from The Survival Handbook of the Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival; Newton's survival rules; Newton's first quarter syllabus; mini lessons about proper kilt wearing, Jerry Potts, Moose Jaw and its tunnels, truffles, the Cypress Hills; excerpts from a Starker journal; Starker family obituary notices from the Globe and Mail; e-mails from the headmaster; Newton's recipes; a diagram of proper Scottish dress; and scattered literary references. The bizarre Starker-lightning connection robbed Newton of his mother and complicates his life, yet the novel testifies to the spirit of a young man determined to overcome his difficulties, maintain his high spirits and sense of fun, and live a meaningful life. Even when his father offers him a way out, Newton chooses to tough things out and find his own way. Young readers will both laugh at and commiserate with Newton and admire his good-natured eccentricity as they share his adventures.
Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.