“Alberta-based Geoffrey Bilson Award-winning author Karen Bass draws on the Cree legend of the Wîhtiko for her latest YA novel, which blends adventure, horror, and some good old-fashioned coming-of-age wisdom.
En route to spend the summer with his mining-executive father in Yellowknife, 15-year-old Jared Fredrickson’s private jet crashes in a remote swamp in Northern Alberta. He regains consciousness as a rescuer enters the scene—Kyle Badger, a Cree teen (also 15) who happened to be nearby and saw the plane go down. After bandaging the unconscious pilot’s bleeding head (there are no other passengers or crew), Kyle helps Jared out of the wreckage, and the latter convinces the former to climb a nearby hill in the hopes of getting some cellphone reception and calling for help. Kyle is more than reluctant. His Kokum (grandmother) has always warned him to stay away from the hill, which is said to be cursed. But Jared is insistent, and the two boys set off on a quest that will lead them straight into the path of mortal danger.
Jared and Kyle could not be more different. Raised in Edmonton by extremely wealthy parents (now divorced), Jared wants for nothing. He is small in stature and obsessed with material goods; he worries more about his damaged laptop than the injured pilot. He also has zero survival skills. Kyle, on the other hand, is the size of a large adult man, shares a small home with his grandparents and younger brother, and is obviously comfortable in the wilderness.
It quickly becomes clear that Jared doesn’t stand a chance of surviving without Kyle’s help, though the two don’t exactly hit it off. Kyle sees Jared as a spoiled, oblivious white kid, while Jared considers Kyle an overbearing bully who uses his size as an intimidation tool. The racial tension runs high, with Jared making ignorant—though not necessarily ill-intentioned—comments about aboriginals and Kyle referring to Jared as Moniyaw. “[It] isn’t an insult. It just means white man,” says Kyle when Jared’s temper flares at the perceived slight. “And if I called you ‘brown man,’ you’d flatten me,” responds Jared.
The dynamic between the boys is the best part of the narrative, and will open many readers’ eyes to the issues of race, class, and privilege. Neither Kyle nor Jared are bad kids, but they both have faults, and their process of figuring those out and coming to terms with them comprises the bulk of the story not dealing with their bigger problem: the Wîhtiko.
Bass does an excellent job of bringing together the elements of her novel, successfully weaving the supernatural thread into what would be a challenging situation for the boys even without it. Their climb up the hill releases the Wîhtiko from its lair and traps them in a parallel dimension where monsters and figures from legend are real, and the boys’ world—including the crashed plane and Kyle’s family—is rendered inaccessible by a strange fog that allows them to see, but not cross over.
The mismatched pair learns to rely on each other as they scramble through the wilderness for days, trying to outrun an advancing forest fire as well as the monster that threatens to eviscerate them. The description of the beast as a “vaguely human, skeletal creature” with a gaping-hole mouth, pieces of lip flapping against its bony chin, and bloody stubs for fingers is certainly nightmarish, but Kyle and Jared’s encounters with the creature aren’t overly scary for the reader. Jared’s terror is convincingly portrayed, however…”