________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 35. . . .May 13, 2016


Dan vs. Nature.

Don Calame.
Somerville, MA: Candlestick Press (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2016.
375 pp., hardcover, $20.00.
ISBN 978-0-7636-7071-9.

Grades 8-10 / Ages 13-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.



Parenting is not for the faint of heart. We need to teach him that.

“What else?” I say. “Besides sex stuff.”

“All right, moving on.” Charlie writes “DRUGS AND ALCOHOL” on another line. “At some point you’ll want to ask him is he’s ever smoked pot. Or done LSD. Or tried magic mushrooms. Ask him if he ever got drunk as a teenager. Then ask him how often. Parents hate talking about that kind of thing with their kids because they usually have to lie. And if we can catch him in a lie, we can use that as ammunition later.”

I shift in my seat, my stomach gripping up.

“What about things I can do?” I say. “I’m much better at that than talking about stuff. Like getting him to leave the hockey game because I had a ‘stomachache’. That was fun.”

Charlie nods. “OK. OK. You’re more of an actor than an orator. We can work with that. How about biting your toenails when we’re sitting around the campfire? Picking your nose and eating it? Constantly playing pocket polo?”

I sigh. At first, I really wanted Charlie’s help. But I didn’t expect him to get so into the whole thing. And now that he’s committed himself to the trip – gotten over his initial terror of the contaminated wilderness – Charlie has been on a tear, arming himself with an arsenal of disinfectants and concocting countless pranks for me to pull on Hank.”


For his sixteenth birthday, Dan’s mother surprises him with a wilderness camping trip. If this wasn’t bad enough for the teen who likes to spend most of his time illustrating graphic novels, his mother has also organized plans for her brand new fiancé, Hank, to go along so the two men in her life have a chance to bond. Together, Dan and his friend Charlie, whom he coerces into going along on the trip, come up with more and more ludicrous and gross pranks they can play on Hank in order to discourage him completely from marrying Dan’s mom and becoming a stepdad. No one has planned for the way the survivalist trip turns out, however. The boys and Hank are joined by Penelope and her apparently sex-starved mother as well as a wilderness guide. But the campers get separated from one another and have to face a hungry black bear and the very real possibility that they are lost in the wilderness and may never get back home.

     Dan is the focus of the novel, and readers will instantly like his character. He stands up for his friend Charlie in the face of bullies. Dan is hopelessly in love with Erin but can’t get up the nerve to speak to her. And given his mother’s lack of success in the boyfriend department, he is understandably concerned about her very quick engagement to Hank and the prospect of their marriage forcing Dan to move to a new neighbourhood. Throughout this very zany story, Calame presents a character who grows up and matures and is quite different by the end of the novel.

     Charlie is obnoxious but funny in a nerdy way and is the brains behind the various pranks intended to embarrass Hank and turn him off the role of fatherhood. Charlie is terrified of dirt and bacteria yet is quite prepared to help Dan when it comes to deer urine and laxative-laced chili. Charlie is quick to come up with schemes, but it is always Dan who must carry them out and suffer the potential consequences. The other young person in the camping group is Penelope who is, in some ways, a female version of Charlie in that she is intelligent and sassy. More than once it is her logic and quick-thinking which saves the others.

     Hank, the unwitting target of Dan and Charlie’s planning, is a dentist and not the experienced survivalist readers think he is. He seems to take the pranks and nonsense without complaint, even when this means losing his brand new cell phone and being unintentionally shot in the leg with an arrow. Understanding and forgiving, yes. Believable? Not so much.

     The setting of the novel in the wilderness gives Calame a great backdrop for the characters since they must depend on one another and no one can simply depart and go back home. Near the end of the book, the campers realize that their very survival depends on their ability to come together and work as a team. As well, the wilderness setting offers all manner of potential catastrophes, including the black bear and some poison ivy, which add to the action, the adventure and the humour of the story.

     Calame writes with his audience of teen boys clearly in mind. The humour is juvenile, and the story is fairly predictable. Laxatives, farting, sex, body odour, poison ivy leaves used on the wrong anatomical parts – all are grist for Calame’s humour mill and will have those with a somewhat bawdy sense of humour laughing out loud. If goofy and somewhat gross is what tickles your funny bone, Dan vs. Nature will provide guffaws from beginning to end. The coming-of-age theme is part of the book and makes the ending fairly predictable, but the emphasis is on outrageous behaviour and the humour which results from it.


Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of 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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