Having recently returned from vacation in Alaska and Canada, suddenly I’m finding myself surrounded by YA titles set in those places. While I wouldn’t call these horror in any kind of traditional sense (with the possible exception of Visions) survival stories do possess their own kind of terror and fascination, and there are a lot of survival stories set in the Far North, where the setting, in itself, is often a major character.
The Call of the Wild, White Fang & To Build a Fire by Jack London
Animals seem to play a large part in stories of the north, and nowhere is that more obvious than in The Call of the Wild. ” To Build a Fire” is actually a short story, and it always terrified me. You can almost feel yourself freezing to death along with the main character. There is no doubt about it that Jack London could truly evoke the wildness and savagery of the far north.
Visions by Eric Walters
Teenage twin brothers are shanghaied by their biologist mother into “vacationing” on a remote Alaskan island while she studies muskoxen. Mystical visions, ghosts and curses draw the brothers into a situation where only their ability to set spirits to rest will allow them, their mother, and the rest of their scientific team, to leave the island. Walters does a good job of drawing lively characters, and creates a nicely creepy atmosphere with details that are fitted well to the setting.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
After teenager Cole Matthews severely injures another boy, he is sent to a remote Alaskan island for a year as an alternative to jail time. In anger, he destroys his supplies, and while there, he is badly mauled by a white bear. Is it really possible for him to survive, much less be redeemed? Mikaelsen has a talent for vivid description and deals with issues here that many boys will have to face in their teen years.
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
A cat and two dogs travel through the Canadian wilderness on a trek to reach their family and home. That’s a description of the plot, but doesn’t begin to do it justice. I speak from personal knowledge when I say that this is an unforgettable book.
Brian’s Return by Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen is probably best known for Hatchet, a middle grade novel about Brian Robeson, a boy who lives through an airplane crash and must survive alone in the northern wilderness. There are several sequels to Hatchet, and Brian’s Return, the final book, is definitely NOT a middle grade novel. In Brian’s Return, Brian is a high school student who is having difficulty fitting in after his time out in the wilderness, and he returns to the place where he now feels he belongs. There’s a pretty intense battle with a grizzly bear– parts of Brian’s Return are pretty scary (or were for me when I read it). Survival stories are not typically my thing, but Paulsen knows his stuff and he will grab the attention of many, many reluctant readers. The previous books, in order, are Hatchet, The River, and Brian’s Winter. Brian’s Return can be read as a stand alone novel, but the background knowledge from the three earlier books is helpful.
My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
This isn’t horror, or an adventure/survival story, but it is a powerful and original piece of writing, and even though it’s a National Book Award finalist, it hasn’t gotten as much exposure as it should. Luke is an Alaskan native sent to a Catholic boarding school with his brothers. His brother Isaac is deemed too young for school and is separated from him and sent into foster care. Tensions between students are high, and the teachers vary from frightening to friendly. The story takes place in the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, and the students find that they have been involuntarily enrolled in a government experiment that requires them to ingest radioactive iodine, not something Luke is going to take lying down. My Name Is Not Easy exposes prejudice for a group that is often overlooked, with fantastic descriptions and nuanced characters. Edwardson apparently based the book on her husband’s experiences of growing up in boarding school. If you know a teen who has read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and loved it, this is a good recommendation.
Jason’s Gold by Will Hobbs
How can you have a list of books about Alaska without one mentioning the Gold Rush? On this list, Jason’s Gold is that book. Middle grade students can enjoy this as well as middle schoolers. Fifteen year old Jason catches gold fever, stows away on a boat to Alaska, and undertakes the difficult, and sometimes frightening, journey through the Alaskan winter to reach the Klondike gold fields, accompanied by… a young Jack London. The Gold Rush setting gives this survival story a little twist– while you can’t say Jason knows what he’s getting into, he has a definite reason of his own for being there. Jason’s Gold has a sequel, Down the Yukon, that is just as good. Author Will Hobbs has written several other books set in the far north including one titled, you guessed it, Far North.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.
You can’t have a discussion of Alaska in YA fiction without bringing up this Newbery Medal award winner. In a different kind of survival story, thirteen year old Miyax was raised in traditional Eskimo ways by her father. After a traumatic experience with her husband (through an arranged marriage) she decides to run away to her pen pal in San Francisco, who knows her as Julie. Lost in the wilderness, she learns she must depend on the skills her father taught her, even as she attempts to escape her situation, and is adopted into a community of wolves.
Happy travels, and stay prepared!