The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean: Printz Award winner 2008
This year's selection as the Printz Award winner by the ALA committee has caused a few to question their decision. I mean, a great many of us it seems (from various lists, formal and informal discussions, mock committees, writers/teachers/librarians/readers, and the like) felt (and still do, some of us) that Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian should've taken the prize. My inital reaction was one of surprise, I admit. But I purposed to read the winner to be able to make a more informed decision.
The White Darkness is a wonderful book, a thriller about a girl, Sym, who's naive about life and love and family and truth. So the main character is indeed flawed. To boot, she has an imaginary friend, but unlike no other: Titus Oates, an historical figure, dead some 90 years, frozen to death at the age of 32 in the South Pole and whose body was never found, Sym's love interest. And who proves to be her common sensical make-believe friend.
Her uncle Victor (not really a blood uncle but a family friend and Sym's now-deceased father's business partner) plans a trip to Paris, to include Victor, Sym, and Sym's mother. At the train, Sym's mother realizes her passport is missing, and so she's left behind in London. In Paris, Sym gets what should be obvious clues as to her uncle's madness, but she ignores them. All part of Victor's years' long ruse. His plan is to take her to the South Pole in search of Symmes' Hole, the entry way into a concentric maze of smaller and smaller earths populated by pure beings. Well, it's a thriller so there's got to be explosions of the only way back to civilization, phones go missing, radios are spilled upon an ruined, and people are knocked out by Victor's special tea. And the search for Symmes' Hole begins.
McCaughrean's language is beautiful, the story, for the most part, is well-put together, and as a thriller, it works. I liked the use of the imagined/ghostly Titus Oates; it helped flesh out the main character, Sym. The ending, I mean the very last scene, down to the last sentence, falls short. Slightly out of character, but at once in character, I guess. If that's possible. I think it could've been 50-75 pages shorter (the cut, cut, cut writer in me says). But I still wanted to go on, the fan of thrillers that I am.
Ultimately, I feel the Printz committee got it wrong, though. Alexie's book offers more in terms of human nature, story, and all things literary. That book's got poetry, man, it's got humor, tragedy, and a very cool story.
What's done is done, though. So congrats to McCaughrean for a fine book.