CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 19. . . .January 21, 2011
Outback. (Orca Soundings).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2011.
131 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.)..
ISBN 978-1-55469-419-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55469-420-4 (hc.).
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Rebecca King.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Two weeks later, I walk out of Adelaide airport. The sky is an intense blue and the air scorches my lungs with every breath. The guy who stamped my passport said G'day, mate, just like in the movies, and I realize that I am actually grinning. Monday morning and here I am, on the other side of the world.
Outback's main character, Jayden, is an almost 16-year-old high school student. Life has been tough for Jayden lately. His girlfriend of two years has dumped him, though she would still like to be friends. This happening has left Jayden depressed, avoiding school, refusing to complete any school work and rarely leaving the house. His mother is understandably worried. Suddenly, out of the blue, Jayden's uncle Mel calls to ask him to come to Adelaide, Australia, to work with him at the university on his research on "bugs or frogs," Jayden's mother not being clear on exactly what. Hoping that this change will shake Jayden out of his depression, his mother encourages him to make the trip.
Jayden does find that the trip is a distraction from his depression. He also discovers that his crazy uncle is even crazier than ever. Uncle Mel sends his research assistant, Natalie (known as "Nat"), to pick Jayden up at the airport. Mel is busy getting ready for a trip to Lake Disappointment, in the middle of a desert in Western Australia, and it's the middle of the summer. Sensible people only go there in the winter.
Nat doesn't warm up to Jayden immediately. Gradually, she reveals that Mel has succumbed to a deep paranoia. He is hoping to discover a new species of lizard and is convinced that everyone—Nat included, but especially a team of researchers named Rizzard—is conspiring to keep him from this pinnacle of his career. As a result, Jayden, Nat, and Mel are headed into a dangerous area where experienced locals refuse to go in summer and only travel in well-equipped convoys in winter. Jayden, Nat, and Mel are neither experienced nor well equipped, though Nat has done her best to require Mel to make sensible preparations.
In the early chapters of the novel, readers have been given some examples of Mel's previous behavior. Jayden has mentioned three early childhood experiences with Uncle Mel. When Jayden was four-years-old, Mel intentionally dropped him over the side of a boat, believing that children had a natural ability to swim. Mel rescued Jayden when he couldn't swim and told his mother that Jayden had fallen overboard. When invited to family show-and-tell when Jayden was in elementary school, Mel brought a tarantula. When a child dropped it, Mel's temper tantrum was so bad that he was barred from future school visits. When Jayden was 10, Mel gave him "a bunch of explosives and stuff" to make his own fireworks in Mel's backyard. When Jayden nearly "blasted my hands off," an action that resulted in permanent disfigurement, Jayden covered for Mel, saying that he had snuck the chemicals out of the garden shed. It is, perhaps, a sign of Jayden's mother's desperation about his current depression that she sends him into Mel's care. Nat, who has been working with him for over a year, says, "It's more than just being odd…he's crazy." And yet both Nat and Jayden go with him into the desert.
As the reader no doubt expects, the expedition is not successful. Their vehicle gets stuck in the sand, requiring that it be unloaded. They are unable to reload the heavy fuel barrels and end up emptying some water jugs in order to carry extra fuel. And this is before Mel takes the truck off the track, which results in its catching on fire and burning up with most of their supplies. Mel disappears into the bush, and Nat and Jayden are left to cope with their impending deaths.
For a reader willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, Robin Stevenson has crafted a fast-paced, tension-filled adventure story. Stevenson has stayed within the guidelines for the "Orca Soundings" series and, in some ways, transcended them. The narrative is told in first person and present tense, which sometimes trips a little—nothing specific just a brief itch that says "Is that quite right?" but doesn't keep you from pursuing the story. In fact, there are moments when Jayden's description of his surroundings is almost poetic.
I look around me. It isn't beautiful in the same way as the wilderness I am used to. It isn't anything like the lakes and forests back home. Still, there's something about it that is getting under my skin in a way I didn't expect. Something about the immensity of it, the sheer bigness. And it feels ancient. It feels like the rest of the world—all the craziness of cities and newspapers and Hollywood and stock markets—can't touch it. Beside the desert, all that other stuff seems sort of irrelevant and unreal.
I find myself trying to think of ways to describe the heat, just in case I ever have the chance to tell anyone about this. The words we use for hot days back home don't fit at all. The language that comes to mind is one we use to describe things like cooking. Baking or roasting or broiling or sizzling. It's like sitting in an oven.
Or a fire. Burning. Scorching. Blazing. Blistering.
I imagine spending day after day just sitting here, waiting in this pathetic patch of shade, praying for rain, watching our precious water supply dwindle and hoping that someone happens to drive by.
Waiting here might be the sensible thing to do, but the thought is almost unbearable.
Uncle Mel has disappeared, leaving Jayden and Nat to disclose their characters. As they face possible death, they learn more about each other and themselves—silly stuff and important stuff. Jayden finds that "I don't want to die. After months in which a good day meant not caring either way and a bad day meant making mental lists of ways to end it. I actually want to live."
Compliments to Stevenson who has succeeded in giving readers a vivid picture of these people and this place.
I have three minor quibbles with the narrative.
There is a small continuity error in the beginning chapter. Jayden says, "When I was four, he [Mel] threw me off his boat" (p. 1), but Jayden and his mother first met Mel after her father died when Jayden was five (p. 6). (As I was reading an advance reader's copy, I hope this will be corrected in the final edition.)
My second complaint is over the word used for the vehicle that was rented for the expedition out of Perth to Wiluna and Lake Disappointment. On p. 24, Jayden is in the back of a "stinking hot jeep." On p. 26, "He (the garage attendant) looks at Nat, barefoot and sleepy in the passenger seat, and at me, hunched up in the back with my camera bag on my lap." It could still be a jeep. On p. 28, "The jeep bounces and crashes its way along." Then on p.29, "If we are carrying the amount of fuel that's recommended, we won't be able to get the truck across the dunes." On p. 40, "the truck suddenly slows as the wheels spin in the deep sand." and on p. 42, "We'll have to unload.' ...Roof rack, fully loaded. The entire back of the truck, crammed full. Tents, sleeping bags, camp stove, water, food, folding table and chairs, first aid supplies, laptop, backpacks full of clothes…And four enormous fuel tanks, forty-four gallons each." Was Jayden in the back with all this stuff? How could the garage attendant see him? One good description when they pick up the jeep/truck could have avoided this confusion.
And finally, when Jayden and Nat are alone trying to decide what to do to survive, Nat reveals that she has Addison's disease which is controlled by medication. Most of her supply of this medication has been lost in the fire that destroyed the truck, and she has begun to feel unwell because she is trying to stretch the medication she has by taking short doses. This does seem a slightly excessive plot twist when Jayden and Nat are already facing death in the desert.
Nonetheless, Outback is a successful, fast-paced adventure story.
Rebecca King is a Library Support Specialist with the Halifax Regional School Board in Halifax, NS.
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