________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006


On Thin Ice.

Jamie Bastedo.
Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2006.
348 pp., pbk. $14.95.
ISBN 0-88995-337-6.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4


When I'd woken up I could still feel that burning ache in my chest ignited by the bear-man's song. I knew right away it wasn't my asthma. This ache went deeper, like a stab wound that turned my insides out. I lay with my eyes closed, rubbing my chest, but the ache wouldn't go away. Floating in that limbo-land between sleeping and waking, I sensed that they only way to heal this wound was to get back into my dream girl's head and find whatever she was looking for.

After two hours of white-knuckle sketching, I had a sudden urge to look up from my drafting table to the full-length mirror on my door. I studied my reflection. I held my chin at different angles. I raised my arm above my head as if to spear something. I wanted to see past my red hair and pale complexion to the black-haired, harpoon-slinging girl who seemed to hide just under my skin. I tried to sketch her face from the dim memory of my dream-fingers touching her cheeks, her nose, her brow. But it was all a blur and my pencil froze on the page.

In On Thin Ice, readers become involved in the snows and spirits of the Canadian Arctic. The main character is 16-year-old Ashley who is, in many ways, a typical teen trying to deal with life in a new community and an extended family which includes both her grandmother and her great-uncle. But Ashley's world is very different from that of a southern teenager. The body of her friend is found out on the ice, perhaps killed by a polar bear. The weather is bizarre, ranging from floods to six-day blizzards. An Air France jet crashes, just missing her village. In the midst of these external events, Ashley has terrifying dreams which seem to predict life in the real world.

     Bastedo obviously loves the north and is very knowledgeable about it. Thus, he has created a book which is not only good fiction but is also full of interesting details regarding the Arctic. The environment and climate change play a large role as polar bears seem to be appearing in places they haven't been seen for years. Traditional culture is also part of the book's charm, with several Inuktitut words adding local colour. A glossary is included at the end of the book. Ashley becomes involved with native drumming and tales of Nanurluk, a legendary spirit bear with whom she seems to have some sort of mystical connection. Although not 'centre stage,' Bastedo also refers to current social issues in the north, such as alcoholism.

     On Thin Ice is classified as teen fiction, but it is a novel which would be enjoyed by adult readers as well. It is partly a coming-of-age novel, but the strong main characters, a wild and crazy supporting cast, and the Arctic setting make it unusual, intriguing and educational. Climate change and its impact on both people and wildlife are major current concerns, and this book brings it into perspective through the eyes of Ashley and her community. Bastedo weaves this into the background of an exciting 'real world' adventure as well as a 'dream world' where realistic and mystic become almost one. Most of the novel is written in Ashley's first-person voice, but there are occasional entries in her dream journal and these help readers glimpse her inner world. Also included are a few chapters written from the perspective of a polar bear which further enrich the book and the reader's understanding of the Arctic world.

     The official release of the companion Teacher's Guide, Polar Bears in a Climate of Change, which includes a complete novel study, was August 1, 2006 at www.onthinice.ca.

     In his foreword, Bastedo notes that, although the book's plot is essentially fiction, it is based on several well-documented events in the modern Arctic. It is this blend of fact and fiction, of reality and dream, which makes this such an excellent novel. Bastedo hopes that "this book will transport you to a fast-changing Arctic world where darkness and light, fragility and endurance, co-exist in a perpetual state of creative tension - as revealed in the two faces of Nanurluk, the mysterious, giant bear that haunted Ashley's dreams" (p. 11). There is no question that Bastedo succeeds in this and that his hope is fulfilled.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a former teacher-librarian and a teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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