Rebecca Stead was not on my radar as a children's author to watch until 2009, when I read her soon-to-be Newbery-Medal-winning When You Reach Me. Ever since, I've had her first book, First Light, on the one-day-I'll-read-this list and -- as I've been relying on downloadables to keep me in audiobooks (due to the unbelievably annoying ongoing unfixability of my computer) -- it rose to the top because it was available for checkout when I needed one.
Peter Solemn lives with his parents in a top-floor apartment in New York City. His father is a glacialogist specializing in climate change, and midway through the school year he receives a grant to study the melting ice in Greenland. Peter and his mother are invited along. At the age of 12, Peter is just starting to experience the debilitating headaches that have plagued his mother all his life, only Peter's headaches are accompanied by mysterious visions.
Thea (pronounced TAY-ah) lives near a huge underground lake in a place called Gracehope. She's been thinking more and more about the legend of how Gracehope came into being -- founded by a persecuted people who first fled England for Greenland, who decades later were forced into the settlement beneath the ice. Thea wonders if it's time for the people of Gracehope to surface again, but the women in charge of the community have expressly forbidden it. But someone has left a map for Thea to find, a map that shows the path to the surface; and Thea -- along with her first cousin Matthias (the 'h' is silent in his name as well) -- takes her beloved sled dogs, the Chikchu, and heads off. A terrible accident occurs and Peter -- out on a trek of his own across the frozen landscape -- hears her dogs crying.
Stead's (rhymes with the past tense of read) story is told in alternating third-person voices. From the beginning, you know that the paths of the two protagonists are going to cross (and that some revelations will arise from that meeting), but Stead doles out the clues in a naturalistic and slightly suspenseful way. These seemed overly obvious to me, but I think young readers will find them worth pursuing. The characters are fully realized -- all the way down to more minor ones like Peter's quirky friend Miles and his father's Inuit research assistant Jonas. The unusual setting is skillfully presented; I had a complete picture of what Gracehope (with its streets and walls of ice and that huge lake) looked like. The scene where Peter attempts to rescue the sled dogs in a blinding blizzard is tense and vivid in my memory.
I was impressed by Stead's ability to interweave the issue of the melting Greenland icecap into the story. There are several scenes depicting the scientific process that are as interesting as the fantasy world of Gracehope.
Listening Library knows how to do audiobooks right), the novel is read by two narrators, David Ackroyd (heard here and here by me) and Coleen Marlo (here). Ackroyd really sounds too old and tired for Peter (if this is indeed him, he's over 70 years old), although he definitely has the narrator skills of natural characterization, varied pacing appropriate to the text, and authentic emotional interpretation. Marlo reads Thea's chapters with a naturalness and authority, providing flawless mini character studies for Gracehope's denizens -- particularly the many strong women of the First Line (descendants of the original Grace). Gracehope-ites all speak with a standard English accent, while both narratives were read with American inflections. Unfortunately, neither narrator seems completely comfortable with the English accent, so the dialogue always sounds a bit stiff and artificial.
A word (well, several words) on downloadables. Normally I don't like listening to them as much as CDs, but maybe my ear is just getting used to them (or I'm making the best of a bad situation). They don't sound as tinny as they once did and lately I've not experienced the occasional glitches like the end of a disc cut off. Half of my audiobooks since mid-July (the date of the computer disaster) have been digital. I still listen to CDs at bedtime (a different book), which -- at 15-20 minutes per night -- can make for an awfully long time from beginning to end. I want my Mac back! :'-(
[Among the many interesting things on the First Light website is an info bite telling me that Greenland forbids the importation of any dogs in order to keep their sled dogs' line pure. I wasn't ever really clear on how Stead's imagined Chikchu were different from Peter's sled dogs (except that they were different), but here's a 1912 photo of some generic sled dog puppies from the Library of Congress, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
First Light by Rebecca Stead
Narrated by David Ackroyd and Coleen Marlo
Listening Library, 2010. 7:04