________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 19 . . . . May 23, 2003


The Contest.

Gordon Korman.
Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2002.
137 pp., pbk., $5.50.
ISBN 0-439-40139-9.

Subject Headings:
Survival skills-Juvenile fiction.
Mountaineering-Everest, Mount (China and Nepal)-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

*** /4


What do you want me to tell you? That it's less than useless? That if you're going to spend zillions of dollars on something that's practically impossible, you might as well be curing cancer, or stopping wars, or feeding the hungry? Well, forget it. People climb mountains, period. And the biggest one is the one they want to climb the most.

This is the era of extreme sports, especially in North America and Europe, where higher income levels over the past few generations mean that lots of people have "been there, done that" and want new ways to entertain themselves. Advertising, movies and video games encourage children from a young age to play harder and faster. The question is: To what end?

     The Contest (Everest Book One) raises this question and more. This book was written before more than 20 deaths from avalanches and other mishaps in the Rocky Mountains in the 2003 season and is thus all the more timely. Seven of the dead were teenagers from a school that promotes physical challenge. At the funeral of one boy, a grandfather questioned the urge to pursue these types of activities. He asked what would be wrong with encouraging students to build their characters by performing community service or becoming active in volunteer groups to contribute to a better society instead of seeking more and more difficult physical thrills. Relatives of other children who died defended the program, praising it for teaching teens how to strategize and seek excellence.

     The Contest opens with 13-year-old Dominic Alexis consuming record amounts of Summit Athletic Fuel and Energy Bars in the search for letters printed in the product wrappers to spell the word "Everest." Dom's brother, Chris, has already won the right to compete for a position on the SummitQuest Everest expedition which aims to put the youngest climbers ever on top of the world's highest mountain. At the last moment, Dom finds a rare "V" and sets off for Colorado. There, 20 teens are pitted against the elements and each other until only five are left. Dom assumes he will not make it because of his small size and young age.

     Survival of the fittest would seem to be the qualifications for making the team. But this is the real world of commercial sponsorship. Cap Cicero, the legendary mountaineer who has agreed to lead the expedition, is pressured to choose a mix of climbers that will keep the press interested and, therefore, sell more athletic products for the Summit Athletic Company. The young climbers need to form a necessary bond, but at the same time are trying to keep their own places by outdoing the others. Several of the kids have personal problems and secrets that complicate issues at the training camp. Korman has included a buffet of personalities, from Samantha, who loves extreme, extreme sports, Perry, the nephew of the Summit CEO who would rather be playing chess, Bryn, whose parents' divorce weighs heavily on her mind, to Tilt, a natural climber whose self centered
attitude could prove dangerous to a team.

     Cap organizes gruelling hikes, climbs and an overnight in a storm to test his charges' mettle, rebuffing all complaints with the reminder that Everest will be even more challenging. The personality of each of the main characters is explored; their attitudes, secrets and fears are revealed as the tasks facing them become more difficult. Interviews with the team psychologist both illuminate and cloud a perception of who should make the team. The inanimate personality of Everest, dangerous and alluring, is ever present.

     The plot moves at a smart pace with plenty of tension between rival climbers and suspense. Downtime creates more problems in the form of unexplained vandalism. A mole is leaking information to a tabloid about conflicts and weaknesses in the group. Throughout, Dominic expects to be cut and finally is when a turn of events catapults him back into the group headed out for a test climb in Alaska.

     Will this unlikely combination of personalities and talent gel? Can young adults survive the rigors of a mountain that has claimed the lives of experienced adult climbers? Is Summit Athletic pursuing excellence in sports or promotion of its products?

     Gordon Korman can never be accused of resting on his laurels. The author of nearly 50 children's and young adult novels began writing at the age of 12 when a Grade 7 writing assignment became a book, This Can't Be Happening At Macdonald Hall. In the ensuing 30 years, he has written a variety of popular books that contain lots of action, humour and suspense. His characters are typical, sometimes quirky, kids who use contemporary language. Great literature it's not, but Korman definitely keeps kids reading.

     Young adolescents, especially boys who enjoy competition, will find this book appealing. Non readers will find it engaging because of the subject matter and the colloquial writing style.


Harriet Zaidman is a teacher librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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