________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 18 . . . . January 15, 2016


The Skeleton Tree.

Iain Lawrence.
New York, NY: Delacorte Press (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Random House), 2016.
278 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-101-91835-7.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Gregory Bryan.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



My worst nightmare came true. I was alone in the wilderness.

I couldn't stop thinking about the hugeness of Alaska, of the mountains and snow, of the forests full of bears and wolves. I thought of the cabin guy. The skeletons. I wanted to cry, to scream for help.

I am an unabashed Iain Lawrence fan. His writing is always fast-paced, yet evocative. He writes in a manner that is appealing to adolescent readers, and, with his latest book, The Skeleton Tree, he will attract new fans whilst satisfying his already existent readership base.

      Chris, 12, and Frank, 15, have barely met when they find themselves washed ashore in the Alaskan wilds after the sinking of the Puff, the boat upon which they were travelling. The Skeleton Tree is told from the first person perspective of Chris who had accepted his uncle's invitation to sail from Alaska to Chris' home in Vancouver. When the Puff sinks and his uncle drowns, Chris finds himself in a life and death struggle with, and against, the boy he has only just met, the surly and mysterious Frank.

      Well-written survival stories are a staple for middle years readers, and this book is likely to find a place alongside classics like Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. Like Paulsen, Lawrence keeps his story moving along swiftly. The wreck of the Puff occurs within the first two chapters (on page 14) and from that point forward, Chris is battling for his survival. Despite Lawrence's page-turning action, the pacing is not so swift as to deny the opportunity for the characters to be well-constructed. Frank and Chris are complex and occasionally contradictory. Depending upon their moods, they swing from friendship to enmity and from hope to despair. After the boat sinks, Chris is constantly battling against the wilderness, his teenaged companion, and his own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Both boys are struggling to find their own places in their home world, let alone finding where (or if) they fit into their new wilderness surrounds. At one point, they wonder about their seeming insignificance, yet just a page or two later they see themselves as all powerful. These sorts of contradictions are perfectly in keeping with the fluid nature of their thoughts as they stumble from one situation to the next. It is this depth and complexity that makes Lawrence's characters believable. On page 164, the two boys watch "the northern lights swirl and stretch, flashing blue and green." Frank turns to Chris and says, "Makes you feel kind of small, doesn't it?" Frank adds that he feels insignificant. Chris thinks, "He chose the biggest word he'd ever used to say how puny we were in that enormous world." Yet, on page 166 and 167, Chris' first person narration reads, "With the gaff in my hands, the birds scattering in front of me, I felt hugely powerful. I was the king of the river. Eagles soared away as I came near them. Little animals scurried off into the bushes. And the masses of gulls split apart, screaming. Every creature on the river made room for my passing, and I bulled my way through them all."

      Alas, Chris will soon feel insignificant again for, in the next line, "I rounded a bend in the river. And there was the grizzly bear..."

      The fearsome grizzly, a clever raven that Chris names Thursday, the huge schools of salmon struggling upriver, a pack of wolves, the shadows in the forest, the ocean that stretches past the horizon—these all are portrayed almost as characters acting important roles in the unfolding drama. In the hands of a strong writer like Lawrence, it all comes together in an exciting coming-of-age tale of survival.

      Some readers will find some of the episodes a little too convenient and contrived. It is a fair criticism, but Lawrence justifies the inclusion of such events with repeated references to the magical possibilities of the wilds, where almost anything can happen.

      I enjoyed The Skeleton Tree, and I have no doubt that most middle years readers will be similarly impressed. I started the book as a Lawrence fan and turned the final page even more impressed by Lawrence's well-refined skill as one of Canada's premier authors for young readers.


Dr. Gregory Bryan is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. He specialises in literature for children.

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

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
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