CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 38. . . . June 1, 2018
Having successfully retreated into himself, eighth grader Eric Johnson just wanted to get through Mr. Baker’s all-day field trip to New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns. However, while the students were beginning their tour of the extensive system of enormous caves, an earthquake changed everything by pulling the class deeper into the earth. Swept up by an underground river, the class becomes split up. Cold, wet, and completely disoriented, Eric finds that he has been completely separated from the rest of the group and must find his own way out. He does not know that the rest of his class has been swept into an underground lake where they, too, must seek a way back to the surface, with little light, no maps, and no compass to guide them. They are all unaware of the dangers that lurk in these caverns, including alien-like subterranean life, the Worms, and the people of the Midnight King.
Following the story arc of three main characters, Eric, his classmate Silvia, and Carlos Salez, “Midnight King”, A World Below is a story of survival and self-discovery. Their unexpected isolation forces each of these characters to become entirely responsible for their own decisions, overcoming tremendous self-doubt. While unique to each character, their problems are only resolved through their internal self-reflections as they are forced to confront the immediate difficulties of being thrown into another world that is ambivalent to their survival.
Unlike many other examples of nature-versus-man survival stories where the survivor confronts only their inner demons, this tale folds in the social struggles associated with leadership, compromise, and empathy. The main story moves steadily through a 29 hour period where the students are lost to the grown-up world above ground while switching mainly between Silvia’s, Eric’s and Carlos’ narratives. The story balances the conflicts with the environment with the internal and social conflicts among characters in a way that makes the story move quickly but very thoughtfully. The sensitivity with which King approaches his characters and the way in which he adeptly incorporates their complex subjectivities make A World Below a great book for anyone, including those who love the survival-story theme.
Christina Neigel is an Associate Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. She is also completing a doctorate in Education at Simon Fraser University.