Friday, May 25, 2012

YA Fiction: The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Publisher: HarperTeen
Date: 2007
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 370
Reading time: one day
*spoilers ahead!*

From GoodReads: Sym is not your average teenage girl. She is obsessed with the Antarctic and the brave, romantic figure of Captain Oates from Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole. In fact, Oates is the secret confidant to whom she spills all her hopes and fears. But Sym's uncle Victor is even more obsessed--and when he takes her on a dream trip into the bleak Antarctic wilderness, it turns into a nightmarish struggle for survival that will challenge everything she knows and loves.

My review: My interest in this book stems from how it is related to John Cleve Symmes. Some background: Symmes, in the early 19th century, came up with one of many hollow earth theories. In his case, he believed that holes at each of the earth's poles led to another world, concealed within the hollow sphere of the world in which we live. Symmes probably wrote the first American utopian novel, Symzonia (1820), espousing these theories. His ideas of the hollow earth were also used in some of Edgar Allan Poe's writings, like "MS. Found in a Bottle" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I'm not sure, but Mat Johnson's recent novel Pym could also draw upon these theories.

So in The White Darkness, the main character is rather conspicuously named Sym. It's short for Symone, but the similarity can't be that coincidental, now can it? And indeed, Symmes' Hole at the South Pole is an important part of the story, as Sym's mad "Uncle" Victor is determined to find the portal to the underground world. But of course, Victor is totally insane (in what turns out to be a rather diabolical way, as he can be ruthless in eliminating things that stand in the way), and this novel is more of realistic or contemporary fiction rather than speculative. I was a bit disappointed both in this and in the lack of source research McCaughrean discussed in the back of the book's added information section. Symzonia is still in print, after all, and you can find more information on Symmes in several books on utopianism and early science fiction.

But The White Darkness is still an utterly fantastic adventure story.

The main cast of characters is quirky, to say the least. Several of them appear to be insane, at first in an interesting way and then, eventually, in more harmful ways. I loved Sym herself. She reminds me a lot of an exaggerated version of my worst character traits - introverted, shy, bookish, socially awkward, talking to imaginary figures in her head as her friends and closest confidantes, not sure how to deal with guys and related matters. She's totally endearing in all her unapologetic awkwardness and shyness, a character to whom many teen readers can relate.

The action in the book is slow but utterly gripping. The White Darkness is an engrossing adventure novel not for its fast-paced, overly dramatic and exciting events, but because it is an epic survival story that paces out itself in an entirely realistic manner. Well, not quite entirely realistic, I suppose, because the chances of setting out across Antarctica as a 14-year-old girl with a madman who's searching for Symmes' Hole is not really that likely to occur. The storyline is perfectly and beautifully developed, and the plot, though a bit slow, never drags. I read all 370 pages in basically one sitting, not willing to put the book down. It's a shame that such a fantastic YA novel that got a lot of reviews and some nice awards a couple years ago seems to not get much attention now. So far this year, it's the only book that's received a full five-star rating from me.


  1. I've always wanted to visit Antarctica. Its strange for me to think that it is just a little way south of Australia and if I crossed that small stretch of ocean, it'd be there. I'm adding this to my toppling TBR list :)

    1. Yes, please add it! It's such an absolutely fantastic read. :) Ironically, I believe the author mentioned that the closest she got to Antarctica was a reconstruction of Scott's camp at an Antarctic museum in Australia.