Scotty Weems is a sophomore and rising basketball star at Tattawa Regional High School. He and his best friends, Pete Dubois and Jason Gillispie, stay behind at school one snowy afternoon after an early closing to fool around in the school’s dungeon-like machine shop. The boys plan to help Jason with his pet project: a go-cart that he is building in shop class and has given the ridiculous name of Flammenwerfer, or flamethrower. Jason might be Scotty’s childhood buddy, but Scotty would be the first to admit that Jason is a little strange, with his intensity and taste for army fatigues and gadgetry. By contrast, Pete is as regular a kid as can be. Between them, they are Scotty’s buddies --- guys he knows are just as happy to hang out with him whether or not he makes his free throw.
The basketball game for the evening looks like it will be cancelled anyway, since the snow is coming down pretty hard. Scotty is fine with hanging around after school with Jason and Pete working on fixing the rickety go-cart --- it’s not as if he has anything better to do. This way, Jason’s dad can give all of them a ride home in a few hours after work.
The decision to stay behind at school instead of taking the early buses home turns out to be the most fateful decision of the boys’ lives, as the snowstorm quickly turns into a fearsome blizzard. As the hours tick away without any sign of outside help, Scotty and his friends discover that they are not the only group left behind at school. A motley crew of other kids and a single adult are also stranded alongside them --- troubled and scary Les, spooky goth kid Elijah, and Scotty’s crush Krista and her best friend Julie, both freshmen. Coach Gossell, the assistant football coach, who stayed behind to keep an eye on the few stragglers, leaves to fetch help for the group, although it’s unclear how far he will get in the storm.
Now it’s just the five boys and two girls, all circling each other warily while checking their cell phones for a signal and waiting impatiently for their rides. The parents who were meant to pick up the teens never show up; indeed, no road looks passable. As dusk settles, the group decides to make a makeshift sleeping area and settle in for the night. Scotty and his friends are in their own tight group, while the girls are clustered together, whispering to each other. Scotty wishes he knew what Krista was saying. Les and Elijah, both loners, stalk away from the group in different directions, although no one ventures too far.
Morning brings not only no abatement of the snow but more bad news --- the storm has worsened, they are hungry and out of food, the heat in the building is failing, and there is no electricity. The inside of the building is soon pitch dark, and the group is navigating by touch and feel. The teens decide to raid the cafeteria to forage for some food, although Scotty is reluctant at first, unwilling to risk being kicked off the basketball team. But as hunger overrides his caution, he joins the plan to find food in the cafeteria (it helps that Krista decides to go with him). They come away with various goodies from the storage area, most with enough preservatives in them to be safe to consume into the next century. At least they won’t die hungry, although they probably won’t be eating nutritious fare for how ever long they remain stranded at school.
With a little help from resourceful Jason and law-breaking Les, the group does its best to survive the unexpected winter campout at school. When the pipes in the bathroom give way, the teens manage to make a makeshift outhouse in one of the classrooms. They raid various corners of the school and come away with useful things such as blankets in which to bundle up. As the last embers of heat die out in the building, the students build a fire in one of the rooms, taking great care to ensure that the building does not go up in flames as a result of a reckless indoor fire. Now they can even cook frozen food on the fire. As the lower levels of the school become inhabitable, the kids move their base to the upper level instead.
However, no matter how stoic and resourceful the teens are, it appears that luck is determinedly against them. The storm turns into the biggest blizzard to ever hit the lower 48 states, one that paralyzes towns and cities all around them. It is no longer clear who has survived and who hasn’t. Are Krista’s mom and Jason’s dad, who were to have picked up the teens and their friends from school, even alive anymore? The only news the students have comes from a lone radio station that they are able to pick up. The National Guard is on its way, but rescue will focus on groups most in need first. Is someone looking for them? Does anyone even know they’re trapped at school, or do they assume they never made it home on the buses? Perhaps Elijah is right in declaring that they are all going to die in there.
Whole buildings appear to have collapsed under the weight of the snow. In fact, the roof of the school building begins to collapse and now cracks and creaks with every raised voice in the building. As a personal situation involving some of the characters raises the threshold for immediate rescue, someone must now venture out, looking for help against all odds.
Narrated in first person by Scotty some time after the snowstorm, TRAPPED reminds the reader forcefully of the true power of nature. The snow in the story is a veritable beast --- capricious, fearsome, and no match for mere humans. There is something particularly scary about being trapped in a mundane setting such as a school, a familiar place made unfamiliar by extraordinary circumstances. The teens in the story are believable, and even the most ornery of them is interesting, as only nuanced characters can be. Author Michael Northrop ratchets up the tension in the story skillfully and realistically, overlapping everyday issues (the appearance of a zit, the desire for an attractive person of the opposite sex) with those dealing with the fight for survival itself.
TRAPPED is a great read for anyone looking for an unusual and tightly plotted adventure story. It is an especially good choice for reluctant readers. My only quibble is that I wanted to learn more at the end of the story. The narrative makes it clear from the very first pages that not everyone made it out, and that one should not expect a happy and tidy resolution. However, the ambiguous ending leaves questions about the fate of some of the characters unanswered. This small complaint aside, I thoroughly enjoyed TRAPPED.
Reviewed by Usha Rao on February 1, 2011