Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Star to the North: Free Range Kids (on Steroids)

Cover of A Star to the NorthI got ahold of a copy of the 1970 juvenile novel A Star to the North after reading about it on Peter Sieruta's Collecting Children's Books blog. It was cowritten by young adult writer Barbara Corcoran and outdoors writer Bradford Angier, who were friends in high school and who clearly kept in touch enough that they undertook this project when they were past middle age.

Sieruta tells the backstory of the book itself and its authors, so I won't go into that any further, but I can't resist sharing some of the things about the story and characters that made for a time-traveling read 40 years after its publication date.

The story concerns a brother and sister, Nathaniel (16) and Kimberly (14), who run away from their Southern California home for the summer and go on an adventure, trying to reach their uncle Seth's cabin in the wilds of British Columbia.

They are escaping their father, who "believed in a regular job and a mortgage and four martinis before dinner. He believed in good boarding schools for his children, preferably at some distance from home, and he believed in the Dow-Jones averages" (page 12). Uncle Seth, who was significantly younger than their father, had dropped out of college and "gone north to live the way he wanted to live" including hunting, fishing and growing his own vegetables. No mention is made of the likelihood that Seth was also probably evading the draft, since he would have lost his deferment when he left school.

Nathaniel has $500 from his grandmother, and decides he can self-fund a trip to visit Seth, unannounced, and that this is okay since he had visited the summer before. He leaves a note for his father: "Don't worry about me. I'll be in touch. Nathaniel." He then hitchhikes (!) into Hollywood and takes a train, then a bus, to the Canadian town closest to his uncle's remote cabin.

It's at this point Nathaniel realizes that Kimberly has been shadowing his travel and wants to continue on to the cabin with him. And this is when the label free range kids really starts to take on a whole new meaning because, it turns out, Uncle Seth's cabin can best be reached by canoeing the river, which is running very high from snow melt.

The duo proceed to buy a canoe and set out, facing all sorts of challenges from rapids, sprained ankles, bears and wandering malamutes. They come very close to drowning. And when they finally are drawing close to their destination, I couldn't help wondering, What will they find when they get there? Will Dad be waiting for them, worried sick because it's taken them so long to get from the last town to the cabin?

But no. This was before the age of helicopter parents, or maybe parents back then just didn't have the technology to indulge their helicopter tendencies.

Dad has called Grandma, the funder of the trip, and chewed her out for 45 minutes -- long distance, coast-to-coast, as she notes in a letter she wrote to Nathaniel in care of the post office nearest to Seth's cabin. The letter says his father has decided it's okay for Nathaniel to stay, but that Kimberly should come to visit Grandma instead of staying because "That life of yours up there does not sound to me like a good one for a girl of her age, with no woman to look after her" (page 145).

I haven't read or seen the movie Into the Wild, but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to realize this story could have had a very different ending. I think if this book were written today, Dad (or maybe Grandma) would have flown to Canada and met them the minute they got off the bus. End of story. Or they wouldn't have gotten across the Canadian border in the first place, being minors traveling alone without passports, and would have spent their time in Washington State instead. Maybe they could have started a software company, or opened a coffee shop.

A period piece for sure, but a charming and fun one. I'm glad I found out about it and could get my hands on a copy, since it's long out of print.


Unknown said...

Dear Daughter Number Three and her readers,

Bradford Angier and Thoreau were the sort of bad-boys I loved when I was 16. Thanks to them I've been swimming with beavers and know how to find something to eat in the woods. This was back in the day of telephone booths.
You might like Margaret Willey's "A Summer of Silk Moths," which just been honored by Green Book Awards. The award is given to books for young adults that encourage environmental stewardship. Please support her if you can.
At the risk of seeming sentimental: I feel we are at a perilous time. But I think we can negotiate it if we find children who are interested in where carrots come from, how to make cheese, and what deer do in the winter.

Margaret Willey said...

thanks Blythe for the support! And thanks to daughter #3 for mentioning Star to the North, a book I remember! I loved survival/outdoorsy books when I was a young reader but actually found them VERY SCARY. Scarier than the monster/vampire books of today. This brings to mind the documentary by Werner Herzog called Wings of Hope about a real teenager who fell 2 miles from a plane and landed in the Amazon jungle still strapped to her seat. She walked for 11 days through the Amazon and was rescued. Her father, a scientist had told her if she was ever lost in the wilds, locate flowing water and follow it downstream. She did this and survived a hellish journey. It's an amazing film and an amazing story. It scared the bejeezuz out of me--the ultimate outdoorsy horror story, but with a happy ending. There are amazing clips of it on youtube.

Daughter Number Three said...

Thanks for your comments, Blythe and Margaret. And thanks for making the connection--I will definitely look up Margaret's book!

I have never seen Wings of Hope and had no idea what it was about. I'll look into that, too.