CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 16. . . .December 18, 2009
Rachel’s dad left the family 10 years ago, promising to return after spending some time alone in the wilderness in order to ‘feel better.’ Despite Rachel’s watching and hoping and even weaving him into her personal fairy tales, her father never returns, and the family gradually comes to realize they will never see him again. Rachel’s grief is compounded by never understanding why he left or what happened to him. Eventually she persuades her mother to let her return, alone, to their wilderness cabin in order to somehow come to grips with the past and perhaps even find clues regarding her dad’s disappearance. Thus begins the quest of Rachel and her dog, Brooks, as they travel together, miles from everyone and everywhere, hoping to find some answers.
Those of us who have been lucky enough to visit Yukon will immediately recall the space, the tundra and the sense of openness and freedom counter-balanced by the real threats from both the terrain and the animals which inhabit it. Author Joanne Bell lives in Dawson City and spends as much time as possible in the mountains, and so she can capably transport readers into her northern world. We see clumps of willow and dwarf birch; we hear wolves howling and the river “carrying tinkling cakes of slush ice”; we feel the strength of a cold wind and the warmth of a campfire. As long as the novel lasts, readers are on a wilderness trek which is so clearly described it seems just metres away.
The story is told entirely from Rachel’s perspective, but flashbacks give readers ample details about her parents, her sister Becky and their relationships, and so readers meet a cast of characters as seen through Rachel’s eyes. As she continues farther and farther from her routine life into the wilderness, so Rachel moves farther and farther from her routine thoughts as she confronts not only physical danger but all of her uncertainties about both herself and her father. It seems to take this distance in order for Rachel to truly understand and come to grips with her own grief even after so many years. The quest and coming-of-age are usual themes in young adult literature, but Rachel’s story pits her against nature in a very real and visceral way.
Juggling Fire is excellent on many levels. Although the main character is female, she could as easily be male, as the rather androgynous photo on the book’s cover hints. Rachel has had experience in or near the wilderness all her life, and so her knowledge of building fires, pitching tents, hunting and taking care of herself and her dog all ring true. She is not a rookie Scout camping overnight; she is a child of the wilderness. Similarly, the story seems to have no real time to it. We sense Rachel is a modern teen, but she doesn’t head to the wilderness with her iPod and cell phone, nor does she expect to find a handy trailside cabin with a microwave. In reality and in her mind, Rachel needs to strip down to just the basics, the essentials, to succeed. Like any archetypal hero on a quest, she could be a child of the past, present or future and the story would not alter in any major way.
Psychologically and physically, Rachel needs to focus in order to both remember her father and to simply complete the mission she has given herself. Interestingly, her way to focus is to juggle since she must be intent on only what she is juggling if she is to succeed and not drop anything. Of course, this intense focus is at the same time a distraction from the other thoughts whirling in her head. As well, Rachel loves fairy tales –– another distraction and yet something upon which she can focus as she creates new scenes and new endings for well-loved stories. In some sense, this entire life journey of Rachel’s is rather like a fairy tale, and undoubtedly she would like nothing more than to re-write the ending with her father at home with his family to live happily ever after.
Juggling Fire is a wonderful tale which will appeal to both male and female young adult readers. Rachel’s hiking through the wilderness is an adventure filled with beautiful scenery but also some harrowing encounters with grizzly bears and wolves. There is mystery as well. What really happened to Rachel’s father? And will she ever find enough clues to deduce the truth? Finally, the novel is a thought-provoking study of how a 16-year-old searches for truth in the midst of very real danger in order to deal with grief that has been too real for too long and must be overcome or at least calmed in order to move ahead confidently and happily into the future. The slogan of Orca Book Publishers is “outstanding books for young readers,” and this is indeed one of them!
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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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.