________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 27 . . . . March 16, 2012


Just Deserts

Eric Walters with Ray Zahab.
Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2011.
256 pp., trade pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 978-0-143-17935-1

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Jocelyn Reekie.

*** /4



“…Look, I don’t know what my father is paying you, but I’ll pay you just as much if you can get me a drive to Tunis.”

“I don’t think your father would approve of that change in plans,” he said. “I don’t see my father out here, so he doesn’t have to know about it.”

“So you would have me lie to him.”

“Not lie, just not tell. It’s not like you run into him on a regular basis or anything, do you?”

“I’ve never met your father.”

“Even better.”

“‘Better’ isn’t the word I would use,” he said. “But it’s amazing that in the first few minutes we’ve been together, you have called me stupid, asked me to lie, and tried to bribe me and buy me off for a few dollars.”

“It would be a lot more than a few dollars,” I said.

“Aaahhh, so you aren’t questioning my integrity and honesty, because you think I have neither. You are simply trying to settle on an advantageous price for those items, as if this were a business negotiation.”

“I don’t know about the business part, but it is a negotiation. All of life is open for negotiation,” I suggested.

“I’m afraid not. Some things are not negotiable. They simply are or are not.”

Great, I was walking through the desert with Socrates.

“Look, all I’m trying to do is get to Tunis,” I said.

“Then we have no need for negotiations. I’m going to take you to Tunis.”

“I want to get there fast.”

“Then you must walk more quickly. Simple.”

“But I don’t want to walk at all.”

“Then you most certainly do have a problem. Tunis will not come to you. You must go to Tunis. But first we must stop for the night.”

He stepped aside. In the distance there was a clearing, and in it were two small orange tents. And sitting beside them, around a small fire, were three people.

In a profile of the author in CM Magazine in 1999, Eric Walters is quoted as saying, “Life does not have to just 'do to you.' You can make a decision that you're going to do things for yourself and overcome. There's nothing more wonderful than overcoming adversity, to stare it in the eyes and to win.” That sentiment is one of two favourite themes that recur in Walters’ books, and his latest YA novel, Just Deserts, certainly follows the trend.

     It’s a classic journey story, inspired by an incredible athlete, Ray Zahib, with life and death consequences raising the stakes to the highest plane, and challenges that will tax the protagonist on every level of his being.

     The plot loosely follows a real desert journey taken by the author with Zahab and other athletes, including four young people who were participating in a program Zahab has named Impossible2Possible (www.impossible2possible.com), a program that gives teens hands on experience in leading expeditions around the world as Youth Ambassadors, communicating with participating schools by satellite technology and providing inspiration to reach beyond the limits and make positive change in the world.

     Walters opens the novel by introducing readers to Ethan Chambers, a 16 year old who regularly swills vodka first thing in the morning to help ease the headache he has from the serious drinking he did the night before, and whose drinking and other infractions have gotten him expelled from every private school his billionaire father has managed to pay his way into. And it’s about to happen again.

     Following a wicked party on a Saturday night, Ethan’s wakened by fellow students who inform him it’s Monday and that he has been summoned by the headmaster. Ethan’s reaction to the news is shock that this time his drinking has caused him to lose an entire day, concern that he’s been summoned—always a bad sign—and action. He forms a strategy to get out of the jam he’s undoubtedly in. “How much does the headmaster know?” he wonders. It can’t be much. Admit nothing, he decides. Anyway, his father is funding a brand new athletic centre for the school, so no matter what the headmaster knows, the punishment will be light.

     Confronted about his behavior, he lies. And when the headmaster plays a video that’s been posted to YouTube that shows him, roaring drunk and mocking the school, the queen, the headmaster, and the headmaster’s family, Ethan tries to bring the student who posted the video down with him. To his greater shock, that fails. He’s told he is expelled. In a last ditch attempt to get the headmaster to back off, he resorts to threats about the funding for the gym, but he is informed his father is fully aware of the headmaster’s decision, supports it, and has ordered a car to take Ethan away from the school. He has one hour to pack his things.

     Okay, Ethan thinks, first he’ll go home to New York, and to get even with his father he’ll make sure the next school he’s sent to is even more expensive than this one.

     But this time is different. This time, he’s put aboard his father’s private jet where he gets inebriated again and later is roused by his father’s pilot who tells him he gets off here. To Ethan`s horror, he discovers ‘here’ is not New York; ‘here’ is Tunisia in northern Africa. The pilot gives him a backpack that contains a letter from his father and tells him the plane won’t be coming back. In disbelief, Ethan can only watch while the jet takes off and leaves him alone on the sand. Still drunk, stunned, dazed, and desperate, Ethan pulls his father’s letter from the pack. If he had doubts the pilot was in earnest when he said he wasn’t coming back, the letter makes it clear.

There is only one way out for you now,’ his father writes, and that’s across the desert. Two hundred kilometers from where you sit is the city of Tunis. You have in this backpack the necessary tools to start your journey. But you will not be alone—I would never completely abandon you in that way.

I have been told that at the south end of the runway is a road, really not much more than a goat path. You need to follow that. Stay on the track, and do not stray. Waiting for you down that path is a man who knows the desert better than almost any man alive. He will be your guide and give you assistance to journey the rest of the way. But before you get to him, you’ll have to complete the first part of the trip. You must take the first steps on your own.

     Further to that, his father writes, Ethan has another choice to make: he can complete the walk within seven days and gain a substantial financial reward, or he can take his own time and perhaps end up alive, but without resources. Again, the choice is his.

     True to his typical reaction to crises, Ethan decides he doesn’t want to die just then, and he takes the first steps. He finds his guide who leads him to a camp where three kids his own age are waiting. The guide introduces him to them as a member of the ‘team’, a word that makes Ethan shudder with disgust. They, Ethan discovers, will be travel mates, and every one of them is a superior athlete in superb condition. So how is he, a drunk who has not done anything more physically strenuous for more than a year than puking on the floor or into a toilet, supposed to keep up? And more to the point, he’s spent a lifetime honing his isolation skills; he’s not about to buddy up with three over achievers who can do nothing for him.

     Walters’ main characters are complex, and so the straightforward plot and subplots take on a larger scope. First, there is Ethan. Spoiled rich boy who has pushed the boundaries of bad behaviour and drinking way past his ability to control the outcome; poor little rich boy who is unwanted and unloved and has sought solace in denial, arrogance and alcohol; misunderstood youth whose superiority is not recognized; intelligent youth who misuses his intelligence to denigrate others or try to destroy them. But there’s more to him.

     Next, there is the desert which, in spite of the physical appearance of ‘empty space’ and ‘sameness’ it presents to the newcomer at first sight, becomes a true antagonist.

     Enter the guide, Larson, a man who speaks four languages but does not speak much, who disappears without warning and reappears silently and suddenly, as if materializing from thin air, who is skilled in first aid, has accomplished physical feats almost beyond belief, is a humanitarian, and dispenses wisdom in the form of ‘bumper sticker’ slogans.

     Ethan’s peers—Andy, Connor and Kajsa (pronounced Keesa)—however, are peripheral characters who mainly provide fairly stereotypical foils for Ethan’s mental and physical struggles. Even their choices of personal heroes are stereotypical, and Kajsa, the only female in the entire book, is portrayed as the weakest link, the member of the team who continually holds the others up because of a bladder the size of a walnut. Andy has arthritis in his knees, but that doesn’t slow him down. In the same profile cited earlier, Walters says he hates weak female characters. So one wonders why he chose to portray Kajsa this way.

     There is no doubt the author knows the desert and what it is to push oneself beyond what one thinks one can endure. Those facts are well explained in the “Author’s Note” and are evident throughout the book. The desert is not a lifeless wasteland, but an ecosystem filled with its own life, and a murderous adversary for the unwary and unprepared. And running an ultramarathon for 115 days straight in the desert, as Larson is said to have done, is not impossible, a fact that is also explained in the “Author’s Note” wherein Walters describes an epic journey Zahab accomplished with two other ultra marathon runners.

     In addition, Walters’ strong background in psychology and social work shows, particularly as it relates to how Ethan views the world, how the ‘team’ around him understands what’s necessary to turn ‘impossible2possible’, and how a short, intense journey that demands a person uses every skill he possesses just to survive and takes him to the brink of death can create an environment for rapid, internal change.

     What is difficult to buy into for this reader is Ethan’s apparent immunity to the effects of suddenly being deprived of alcohol when he has spent years drinking to excess. There is one, one line mention of him with a shaking hand. Otherwise, the reader sees no sign at all that Ethan’s drinking has affected him in any way. And he not only suffers no consequences from cold turkey withdrawal, he is also able to keep up with the super athletes in spite of having done no physical exercise for more than a year, and with blisters forming on blisters at a speed Larson has not seen before, and toenails so damaged Larson thinks he will lose them. In the “Author’s Note,” Walters tells readers he did the same walk across the Sahara he has his protagonist take, also with a group of trained athletes. But Walters trained hard for six months prior to the beginning of the walk, and even then “had no illusions I could keep pace with these amazing athletes.” The fact that Ethan suffers no consequences from his alcoholism and lack of physical training, other than blisters, turns him into something of a cartoon character, much like the roadrunner who is pummeled, trampled, flattened and squished, but pops up to run the race again. It simply isn’t real.

     In the end though, the story, itself, with its fast pace, realistic and often humorous dialogue, snapshots of interesting historical facts, exotic setting, and memorable main characters is not likely to fail to catch and hold the imaginations of young readers, and it may well serve as an inspiration that convinces some they can achieve more than they dreamed.


A writer, editor and publisher, Jocelyn Reekie lives in Campbell River, BC.

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

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