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Genre-busting 'Bear Island' delivers fresh approach to an old theme

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 12, 2015

Surviving Bear Island

By Paul Greci; Move Books; 192 pages; 2015; $16.95

Among the more commonly used plot lines in Western literature is the story of the individual or group stranded on an island far from the mainland. First popularized with "Robinson Crusoe" and then "The Swiss Family Robinson," the theme has been reworked in countless ways, ranging from the very dark "Lord of the Flies" to the ridiculously silly television series "Gilligan's Island."

The challenge for any author taking up this well-worn theme is to create a compelling narrative while avoiding the pitfall of letting his or her story lapse into formula. In his debut novel, "Surviving Bear Island," Fairbanks writer Paul Greci manages to do just that with a book that is written for young adult readers but that contains enough complexity and character growth to appeal to adults as well.

Greci wastes no time setting the stage. Within the first couple of pages, Tom Parker finds himself alone and washed ashore on Bear Island after he and his father are swamped in their sea kayaks. The island sits way out in Prince William Sound and is rarely visited by people, leaving Tom with only his wits and a survival kit until help arrives.

As noted above, this is hardly new territory for a novel. Having already headed in a direction that could be fairly called a genre, Greci risks falling into the realm of cliche by adding the eternal theme of the potentially orphaned child to the mix. As we learn right off, Tom's mother died three years before the story takes place. With his father now missing, the young man has to confront his feelings about both parents in their absence.

Greci could easily have resorted to sentimentality and emotional manipulation with all he has going here, but what he's done instead is created a believable middle-school-aged kid, put him through some ruthless trials and explored what would happen.

He knows the terrain

Part of what makes the book work so well is Greci's knowledge of the terrain and climate of the story's locale. A sea kayaker and backcountry explorer himself, Greci has spent ample time in Prince William Sound. His knowledge of the plant, animal and sea life, the hazards of open water and the difficulties of traveling overland lends his book considerable realism. Readers unfamiliar with the area will gain a sense of its beauty and its indifference to human intruders.

As the book progresses, Tom slowly makes his way across the island, aiming for a point named the Sentinels for the immense trees growing there. It's a spot where he and his father had camped, making it a logical rendezvous assuming his dad survived and is looking for him.

Along the way, however, Tom needs to eat. Some of the book's most memorable passages involve his efforts at food gathering. Beginning with berry picking and quickly extending to catching salmon with minimal equipment, Tom ultimately fashions a homemade spear and obtains a bit of game meat as well. Greci is too smart to think Tom could live well off the land, however. The paleo diet leaves the boy gaunt and struggling for energy as the days turn to weeks and winter approaches. Still, the boy learns an important lesson:

"Everything I ate came from the island. Bear Island deer. Bear Island salmon. Bear Island blueberries. Bear Island porcupine.

"And most everything I used, too. Bear Island water. Bear Island boughs for my bed. Bear Island deadfall for my house. Bear Island alder for my grill. Bear Island wood for my spear. Bear Island deerskin for my gloves.

"I totally relied on Bear Island.

"And I thought about people that lived before ships and planes; those people relied on their places, too. They ate the place, drank the place, breathed the place they lived."

Bear encounters

Assisting Tom along the way are the voices of his parents. His mother had been a songwriter who died from a hit-and-run while riding her bicycle. Her lyrics echo through Tom's head, providing encouragement when he feels like giving up. And his father's lessons about wilderness skills keep paying off, too.

Tom slowly unwinds his complicated feelings toward both parents. He carries a self-inflicted burden of guilt over his mother's death and has to make peace with it. Tom also needs to reach an understanding with his absent father, who had gone completely inward after his wife's accident, virtually ignoring his son for three years. Only in the weeks leading up to the kayak trip had Tom's father started reaching out to him again, but now he's physically gone instead of emotionally missing. In keeping with the book's realistic nature, Tom doesn't completely resolve his own feelings about these losses by story's end, but he makes progress.

Meanwhile, Bear Island lives up to its name. Tom has numerous bear encounters as he works his way to the Sentinels. These will keep young readers turning the pages, and that's one of the goals of this novel.

"Surviving Bear Island" is published by Move Books out of Connecticut, a press focused on producing works that will keep boys in fourth grade and above reading. Greci's contribution -- which has been named a Junior Library Guild selection -- is well suited to this objective. He's written a book that gives voice to a boy that age, and young readers will undoubtedly put themselves in Tom's position as they read along. Greci has taken a popular if somewhat shopworn theme of juvenile literature -- being marooned -- and given it new vitality. You needn't be a kid to stay up late reading this one.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.

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