I Am Still Alive, by Kate Alice Marshall. Viking Books for Young Readers, 2018. 314 pages. $17.99 hardcover.
Billed as a survival story and thriller, this debut young-adult novel (recommended for ages 12-17) tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl battling the Canadian wilderness and seeking revenge on a pair of killers.
“I’m alone. I don’t have much food. The temperature is dropping. No one is coming for me.”
Meet Jess Cooper, the displaced “city girl,” as she begins her story. In alternating sections, the author switches between two time periods. We learn, in chapters labeled “before,” what happened before the moment when she stands in the rain on a remote lakeshore with a burnt-down cabin smoldering behind her. In chapters labeled “after,” we move forward from the inciting incident, as she enters her survival quest. Only half way through the book do the two time periods come together, and we understand what led to her dramatic situation.
Jess has had some very bad luck. Not long before the story begins, she was in a terrible car crash that killed her airplane-pilot mother and left her with severe injuries including a bum leg. After staying with a foster family, she was told that authorities had found her long-absent father in Alaska, and she would be going to live with him. Once she arrives in Alaska, however, a strange man collects her for a long journey across the border into Canada and then on a floatplane flight into the wilderness, where she finds her father living alone in a small cabin. Needless to say, this is not the start of a great relationship. He wants his “Baby Bear” to learn wilderness skills, and she only wants to be back at the mall with friends and her phone. And then, there’s something odd about her father’s circumstances. What’s he doing out there? What’s he hiding from? Should she be afraid?
She’s only just beginning to make peace with her situation when a couple of strangers show up.
This fast-paced story has all the elements that appeal to young people — and no doubt to many adults. There’s wilderness survival: how will Jess find food and shelter and learn how to do things like butcher animals and make clothing from their skins? There’s the mystery: what’s in the locked box? What will happen next? There’s revenge: What will she do with the weaponry she learns to use, if and when the bad guys return? Can she be a cruel killer? There’s excitement: storms, fires, guns and explosives, fights with wolves, canoes overturning. There are many animals: bears, moose, deer, wolves, rabbits, weasels. There’s a big dog. Of course, there’s a big, sloppy, lovable dog that becomes the girl’s best friend and confidante.
Certain influences are obvious here: popular dystopian books and movies such as The Hunger Games, reality TV shows about survival, and video games involving lots of killing and blowing things up. The heroic protagonist, Jess, has a compound bow and knows how to use it. The violence throughout is graphic and gruesome. (The author’s bio note says that she “works in the gaming industry as a writer and designer” in the Pacific Northwest.)
The make-believe world that Jess inhabits is not particularly true to northern Canada, where the story is ostensibly set. We are to believe that, in mid-summer when Jess arrives, the berries are already past. (Jess later finds some “snowberries” in the forest, though no berries of that name are native to Alaska or the Yukon.) Her father, living in the northern bush, apparently cuts all his wood with a “hatchet” rather than an ax or maul — nevermind a chainsaw. When a floatplane lands on the lake, instead of pulling up to shore, the people paddle in on a raft. An overturned canoe is easily flipped back, full of water. The various animals live together in a pine forest as though in a zoo. Credulity is stretched in various other ways within the plot. Why would the bad guys bury something they wanted with a dead body instead of taking it with them, and why would they return for it in the dead of winter? The rescue that eventually comes — as of course it will — has absolutely no rationale or logic.
Incongruities and implausible stretches of the imagination may not matter to most readers, who will not be expecting to learn actual survival skills, the natural history of a northern forest, or physics. They may be perfectly satisfied with the story’s momentum and the idea of a teen-age girl overcoming her physical disability and doubts to become a capable outdoorswoman and warrior, a Wonder Woman of the north. Jess, with her matted hair and her feet wrapped in animal skins, might be an appropriate model of empowerment for today’s young women. When she also shows some love for her parents as well as her dog, that’s a bonus.
“If you can’t be strong, you have to be smart. And smart is better than strong, out here.” These words of Jess’s father stay with her throughout her months in the wilderness. They are not a bad maxim for any of us to live by, anywhere.