The White Darkness
Fourteen-year-old Symone is obsessed with Antarctic exploration. Ever since the death of her father, she has read every book and watched every movie she can find about Antarctica. She is particularly enamored with Capt. Lawrence "Titus" Oates, one of the explorers lost in the doomed Scott expedition. Titus is her companion and confidante, an imaginary friend who fills in for her grieving family and distant friends.
Outside of Titus, the only person to take an interest in Sym's life is her Uncle Victor, a family friend who has cared for the family since her father's death. Uncle Victor feeds Sym's interest in Antarctica and arranges for a trip to the frozen continent. There, Sym must face the White Darkness, a phenomena of the polar summer where the sun never truly sets and the only indication of night is white, unmarred by shadow.
Sym identifies with the purity, isolation and silence of the white continent. She sees herself as particularly suited to a place that others see as dead:
"God sketched Antarctica, then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him." Sym observes, "At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn't finished. It's the address for Nowhere...it mesmerized me. The idea of it took me in thrall. It was so empty, so blank, so clean, so dead. Surely, if I was ever to set foot down there, even I might finally exist. Surely, in this Continent of Nothingness, anything --- anyone --- had to be hugely alive by comparison!"
Sym does not know that she is a pawn in a larger conspiracy, subject to the fanatical beliefs of one man. Uncle Victor is obsessed with his own theories about discovery and becomes unhinged. He is less concerned with their ability to survive than in securing his place in history. Nasty secrets start to emerge as they travel across the ice. Sym must choose between trusting her uncle and listening to the inner voice she has always regarded as imaginary.
THE WHITE DARKINESS is told entirely from Sym's point of view, offering her wry observations of the other travelers and sharing her expertise on the subject of the Arctic. Author Geraldine McCaughrean's biggest challenge is convincing the reader that a smart girl like Sym would be taken in by the suspicious circumstances of her trip with Uncle Victor. McCaughrean succeeds by invoking other polar explorers, many of whom might be regarded as madmen, making discovery at the expense of their own lives.
The juxtaposition of Sym's adventure next to the Scott expedition --- which McCaughrean wisely summarizes in an appendix at the end of the book --- asks if death is too high a price to pay for discovery. The irony of the Scott expedition was that, as they chose to push on to discover the South Pole knowing they were unlikely to return, another explorer, Roald Almundsen, already had beaten them to the Pole by two weeks and lived to tell the tale. Had the Scott expedition survived, they would not have been the first to reach the Pole. They found more notoriety through death than they would have in life.
The Arctic regions are ideal for asking the big questions about ethics and morality because one's decisions, which might be regarded as opinions in ordinary life, hinge on life or death in such a harsh environment. Many 19th century writers were fascinated with the Arctic as a place representing the unexplored regions of the human psyche. In FRANKENSTEIN Mary Shelley sets the final showdown between creator and monster on the polar ice. Henry David Thoreau wrote about the Arctic explorers of his time in WALDEN saying, "...explore your own higher latitudes...there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold, storm and cannibals...than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific of one's being alone."
THE WHITE DARKNESS manages to ask some of these big questions without compromising plot or pace. It is a book filled with action, mystery and the slightest touch of the supernatural. Its strange story will be appreciated by readers interested in survival tales and the shadow side of human nature.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on January 1, 2007