________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 2 . . . . September 9, 2011


First Descent.

Pam Withers.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2011.
272 pp, hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-77049-257-8.

Grades 7-12 / Ages 12-17.

Review by Rob Bittner.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.



Adrenalin surged through me like electricity. I went into a high-speed sprint, knowing that the ice jam behind me was splitting apart as surely as if someone had blown it up. I didn't need to look to know that the pent-up river beneath it was about the explode, like lava from a volcano. If the first push of broken ice reached me before I neared shore, I'd be churned like meat in a grinder.

If the quotation above is any indication, Pam Withers' new book First Descent is a book that just can't be put down. From the first page to the last, Withers keeps her readers on the edge of their seats. Moving from a tale of frustration and arrogance to one of survival, heroism, and humility, the story of Rex's adventure to Colombia to navigate the aptly named El Furioso river will keep audiences flipping pages until the last sentence. Withers is a talented author with a knack for exciting and gripping action as well as for sympathetic and moving characters. The plot is well-paced, and her prose elicits beautiful images of the Colombian landscape.

      The novel follows 17-year-old Rex, a world champion whitewater kayaker with a famous kayaking grandfather, as he travels from his home in Alberta to the politically unstable and challenging new landscape of Colombia. At the same time that Rex is planning his trip, Myriam, a young girl, is growing tired of her life on the shores of El Furioso and wishes to escape and go to school to become a reporter. Rex secures a guide and two teammates who, though initially excited, end up trying to talk Rex out of his determination, sure it will lead him to an untimely end. But when Rex ends up meeting Myriam and her family, he finds himself in a much more complicated situation than he bargained for.

      Myriam eventually becomes a guide for Rex as he works on his first descent on the raging rapids of El Furioso. Unaware that they are both part of a much larger story starting over 60 years ago, the two form a bond that is both a blessing and a curse. The unstable political climate in Colombia has created warring factions - guerilla warriors and paramilitaries - and when Rex, Myriam, and a rebel soldier end up running for their lives, Rex deserts his earlier ambitions of running the river to help save them all from danger. As the three try to get to safety, their only possible escape option appears to be a suicide mission. But Rex thinks he just might be able to get them all to safety, and all he has to do is be perfect.

      Withers' characters are well-rounded and complex, and even though Rex is, at times, infuriatingly ignorant - or perhaps naive is the better word - of the world around him and of the warnings of everyone he initially meets upon arriving in Colombia, he is still sympathetic. Myriam is a strong female character that deserves great attention, both for her determination to create her own future, but also for the tragic environment in which she grows up. Her fiancé, Alberto, is also integral to the story, and his character is rich and infuriating, being both overly protective and painfully prejudiced against Rex. Also, Withers's attention to detail - both in terms of her characters and their environments - most likely connected to her experiences as a whitewater kayak instructor, adds many layers to the already intricate world within the pages.

      One area of slight concern is that of language and translation throughout the story. There is mention of some three or four different languages being used throughout the story - Portuguese, Spanish, a native language, and English - yet the difficulties of translation between characters does not show itself all that well at times. Rex only knows English and some Spanish, but Myriam conveniently knows Spanish, English, and her own language and readily translates when necessary. And other characters know very limited English, but they are always able to get across what they need to, at times a bit too easily. More frustration or urgency surrounding this may have added another layer of intensity to the story. These issues, however, are not integral to the overall story arc and do not detract in any way from the thrilling whitewater action.

Highly Recommended.

Rob Bittner is an MA Candidate in Children's and Young Adult Literature at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.

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

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