The Printz committee has a knack for choosing the more challenging books as their winners and the road less traveled often prevails. In the case of The White Darkness that is something to be taken literally too: an exploration into the white darkness of the Antarctic is not really a common topic in YA, but it doesn’t mean it can’t produce a gem of a novel that surpasses the mere adventure novel. There’s also Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver, really a world apart from The White Darkness, and this book too caught the eye of the Printz Committee… they sure like it cool!
In The White Darkness it is Sym’s voice that is somehow as magnetic as the pole she’s about to explore with her ‘Uncle’ Victor. Sym is 14 and like many protagonists in YA novels she is withdrawn from her contemporaries who all just seem to be interested in boys and make-up. Sym, on the other hand, is shy and at the age of 14 she is in love with Titus Oates, the voice in her head. For the reader and for Sym this is not something out of the ordinary. Titus is just there. Although this is obviously a coping mechanism (Sym’s father has died), the voice Sym hears and is in love with also represents her lifelong passion: the Antarctic. In the beginning of the novel, Sym’s Uncle Victor – who’s actually a friend of the family – offers to take Sym and her mother on a trip to France. But at the airport Sym’s mother can’t find her passport, and Victor and Sym leave without her. What sets out to be a weekend in Paris, turns into what should become Sym’s adventure of a lieftime: a trip to the Antarctic… the one place she’s always dreamed of as it’s the place that Titus also explored so many years before. From the start the reader realizes that something is ‘off’ about Uncle Victor, but Sym still believes vehemently in the genius that is Uncle Victor… It is only throughout the entire trip that she realizes that she has been conned by him…for a very long time. Because Uncle Victor is actually looking for Symmes’ Hole and the journey into the white darkness is the journey of an obsessive madman.
There are a couple of elements that make of The White Darkness such a thrilling and challenging read. First there’s the link with Titus Oates. Titus Oates is actually Captain Lawrence Oates, an English Antarctic explorer, who explored the South Pole at the beginning of the 20th century. He died in an act of self-sacrifice, but his body was never found. In the book his voice, springing from the vivid imagination of Sym, is a presence all in its own: guide, conscience, friend, hero…he takes on whatever form Sym needs him to be. And though it may sound contradictory, but it is the voice in Sym’s head – her true confidant and the one protector against the evil machinations of ‘Uncle’ Victor – that keeps her sane in the mad world that Uncle Victor has created for her. Second, there’s an obvious theme of abuse in the book, but contrary to most abuse stories, the abuse here is not sexual or physical (except for one crucial element, which I will not spoil!), but entirely psychological, and as pervasive as any form of abuse. The last challenging element is the narrator’s voice. As a reader you just know that something is not quite right, even though you can’t exactly put your finger on it, and as a reader, you will get frustrated with Sym for not figuring things out about what is going on with her. Also, the almost outrageous adventure (a girl taken on a trip to the Antarctic without her mother’s knowledge!) that Sym is about to experience takes a lot of willpower on the part of the reader. Once you’ve overcome those hesitations, however, you will marvel at the exquisite beauty of the white darkness of the arctic. Sym’s voice is captivating and magnetic. The arctic is intoxicating in that all-absorbing sort of way.
All props here go to McCaughrean who has created a multi-layered plot (history blending with a present-day coming-of-age story) while not sacrificing the attention to language. Her prose has the sort of astonishing beauty that the Antarctic she’s describing also has: atmospheric, desolate and treacherous: “When the White Darkness sets in, it’s such a kindness. All shadows disappear – the sky, the ground – leaving nothing but a milky, trembling nothingness. It’s a sweet light, a pleasant light, like lying under a sheet on a summer morning: the presence of light without any of the usual complications – like being able to see. Perfect ignorance was like this, I remember: a feeling of enlightenment without ever quite grasping what was going on. They call it the White Darkness.” (p. 305) Loved this!