Review: 'Surviving Bear Island'

A middle-grade book based in Prince William Sound

“Surviving Bear Island,” Fairbanks author Paul Greci’s debut work of middle-grade fiction, focuses on a resilient boy who finds himself stranded on an island in Prince William Sound after a kayak trip gone wrong. Tom Parker’s parents loved the outdoors, and this trip with his father was meant to help both of them bond in a way they haven’t been able for a long time. At first, things go as planned. They paddle along the unpopulated shore of Bear Island, camping, looking for wildlife, and remembering Tom’s mother, who passed away a few years before.

In a sequence told in small bits throughout the book, things take an unfortunate turn when the kayak capsizes. Tom makes it to shore alone and sets off toward an old growth copse of trees that he and his father named “the Sentinels.” It’s where he’s sure his father will find him, and where he knows he’s most likely to be rescued.

“Surviving Bear Island” follows in the vein of books like “Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen, in which a young boy finds himself alone in the woods, forced to rely on only what he has with him (several times, Greci lists those things), his knowledge of what’s around him — which isn’t always firsthand — and his own wits. Greci has spent time in Prince William Sound, and it shows. He describes Tom’s gradual initiation from the comforts of civilization into stark necessity and the natural world in a way kids will be able to relate to.

“Back in Fairbanks,” Tom thinks, “who cared if it was forty below in the winter when you had a warm house to hang out in or all the right clothes to go outside if you wanted to? You didn’t really need to deal with the weather unless you lived in it.” And, a little while later: “I turned around and picked my way downstream, glancing over my shoulder every couple of steps. Alert but calm, I thought. I didn’t freak out and do something stupid. I was starting to really get this. If you didn’t threaten something, or act like you were super nervous, then whatever else was around mellowed out too.”

Though neither of his parents are physically present, both of them help him. His mother was a musician, and Tom gives himself a few moments of much needed levity making up songs about his situation, as she would have done. His father’s advice and knowledge save him, as well – “alert but calm” is his father’s phrase, and it’s his father that forced him to carry a survival pack at all times, even though it was cumbersome.

Survival pack notwithstanding, his parents do take risks, and, at least on his father’s part, they do make decisions that the people teaching outdoor survival classes would shake their heads at (not telling anyone they were leaving, for example.) Other times, however, they’re the kind of risks associated with living a full life and appreciating the outdoors in a place like Alaska. Tom’s predicament makes him think about this. “(Mom and Dad had) both taken all kinds of risks in their lives. But how were you supposed to live, anyway? All cautious, never doing anything because you were scared of some unlikely disaster? What kind of life would that be? What they did and why they did it was part of who they were.”

The mission of Move Books, the company publishing “Surviving Bear Island,” is “to cultivate a generation of boys who are recreational readers... because the stories mean something to them and fit their own experiences,” according to the jacket of the advance reading copy. It’s a laudable mission, though I can’t help but worry young girls will see a riveting book about the outdoors, read “for boys,” and absorb the idea that it’s not for them. Then again, I read Hardy Boys books when I ran out of Nancy Drew, so maybe it’s a baseless fear. Either way, “Surviving Bear Island” is an exciting book outdoors-minded boys and girls both will enjoy, and Southeast Alaskans will find a lot they can relate to. It’s fast paced enough to keep reluctant readers’ attention, but it also avoids oversimplification while communicating real-life dilemmas in understandable ways.

Though some of Greci’s previous work has won awards, “Surviving Bear Island” is his first published novel. It’s aimed at kids in the 4th grade (age 9) and up; it’s a Junior Library Guild Selection for 2015.

It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, and it’ll be available at bookstores and online retailers March 25.

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