December 20, 2012
(+++) CRIME AND, MAYBE, PUNISHMENT
The Boy in the Snow. By M.J. McGrath. Viking. $25.95.
On the Run. By Clara Bourreau. Translated by Y. Maudet. Delacorte Press. $14.99.
Edie Kiglatuk, half Inuit and half Outsider, former polar bear hunter, struggling recovering alcoholic (“She’d fallen off the wagon once too often, wasn’t eager to repeat the process”), tour guide in the far north – where the unforgiving landscape and frigid temperatures are an integral part of the story – is back in The Boy in the Snow, having been introduced effectively in White Heat, in which the mystery was slow to build and a little far-fetched, but the atmosphere was very well presented and integrated with traditional Inuit beliefs involving appreciation of nature and the environment and the place of all creatures, living and dead, in the circle of life. The Boy in the Snow is more of the same in a somewhat more complicated plot – two plots, actually. In one, Edie, who is helping her ex-husband in the Iditarod dogsled race, gets lost in the forest while following a Spirit Bear and finds a frozen baby in what looks like a doghouse but is really, the police say, a spirit house. And then a second baby is found in a similar house. In this part of the plot, police want to blame the deaths on Old Believers, a Russian orthodox sect that follows ancient practices – and specifically on Dark Believers, an offshoot of the offshoot, said to worship Satan but not certain even to exist. Edie has other ideas. In the second plot strand, an Alaskan gubernatorial election gets messy, with Anchorage Mayor Chuck Hillingberg running against a popular incumbent. Edie figures out how Hillingberg’s ties to a lodge relate to the murders; this is what connects the two plots. (There is a third storyline, too, involving the Old Believers and a property developer, but it is ancillary and thin.) The problem here is that neither of the two different (but related) criminal enterprises in the story is particularly believable, and Edie herself has not warmed up (so to speak) since the previous book: her personality is brittle and generally unlikable. And the other characters are all types – you know Hillingberg is smarmy the minute he shows up, for example. This puts the whole weight of the book on Edie, who is not strongly delineated enough to carry it. Yes, she gets into peril, and yes, she figures things out before anyone else does, but it is hard to care a great deal about her even though readers will know they are supposed to do so. McGrath generally writes well, especially in descriptive passages – the Alaskan wilderness is more alive than many of her characters, and the book’s best scene has Edie and two other characters stranded in a snowstorm. But The Boy in the Snow has some stylistic missteps, including plot summaries in which characters tell each other things that an attentive reader will already know – and an ending that knits things up too neatly through a series of overly convenient revelations. There is an underlying message of religious tolerance in the book, and an awareness that every religion harbors fanatics; these elements give The Boy in the Snow a little more depth than it would otherwise have. And the exploration of the seamy side of Alaskan politics is well-done, although political wrongdoing and manipulation are scarcely surprising in warm regions or cold. Despite its strengths, though, the book falls short of a top rating, because its central character is not one of its strong points. Edie needs to grow some more, and maybe pick up an interesting foil or two among the others in McGrath’s world, to become as captivating as McGrath would no doubt like her to be. And McGrath could use better editing, with the book filled with errors such as “right of passage” instead of “rite,” “had been left” instead of “had left,” and “anymore” for “any more,” “phased” for “fazed,” “who’d had sat” for “who had sat,” “griping” for “gripping,” “baled” for “bailed,” and so on – to the point where a company is called Tryggve on one page and Trygvve on the next.
A crime novel for preteens rather than adults, On the Run has no premeditated murders or seamy political machinations, but it does have a very intriguing premise that may even pull in some grown-up readers. Early in this short (120-page), fast-paced book, fourth-grader Anthony Cantes learns that his father is not a world-traveling photographer, as his mother has always told him, but in fact has been in jail for two years, awaiting trial for bank robbery. Anthony’s dad took after his own father – they were thieves together. In fact, Anthony’s grandfather turns out to be “one of the most famous bank robbers of his time. Books have been written about him. …My dad…thought robbing banks was a good profession. He decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps.” There is a certain noir element to On the Run that does not usually appear in crime-related books for young readers; possibly this is because Clara Bourreau lives in France, where she writes TV and film screenplays (it is easy to imagine the book transformed into that form). Anthony’s world crumbles around him quickly – it even turns out that his grandfather once killed someone – but this is just setup for the main plot of the book, which involves Anthony’s father’s escape from prison. Anthony is kept constantly in the dark about what is going on – his repeated plaintive questions (“Why won’t anyone tell me anything, ever?”) are perfectly reasonable. Then his father, quite improbably, comes to see Anthony and ends up taking him along while fleeing the police. Boy and man slowly develop a closer relationship that is obviously not going to work out well – even ignoring the fact that a policeman’s daughter is part of the picture and becomes friends with Anthony. The book races to its rather improbable conclusion, which in no way pulls everything together as neatly as a U.S. author would likely have felt obligated to do. On the Run is an odd book, its focus on father-son bonding under difficult circumstances made strange by the nature of those circumstances. There is an amoral undertone to the whole thing – Anthony does think his father should return the money he stole, but that is because he wants the family to have a normal life, not really because of any ethical or moral imperative. The characters have little personality – the grandfather is the most interesting – and are defined by what they do rather than who they are; even Anthony’s father’s explanation for his criminal behavior is facile (he says he is not as smart as his brother, a research scientist). A fast read that leaves a somewhat unsatisfied taste behind, On the Run ultimately does not fulfill its intriguing premise, but its notion of a boy wanting to be with his father, no matter who or what that father is, is one that families interested in the book will find worth exploring.