Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On The Volcano by James Nelson

Katie MacDonald lives with her father Jack, in the fictitious Great Territories, on the slopes of a volcano. Her father and her mother fled to this isolated area of New Pacifica when rebels attacked towns near to where they were previously living. Katie's mother died, shortly after the move and she and her father have lived on their own for many years in a log cabin that he built. Katie's world is small; consisting of her father and his friend, Lorraine who drops by to help with work. Her dream is to accompany her father on one of his infrequent trips to Badwater for supplies. Her father reluctantly agrees to let her accompany him on his next trip to Badwater, with the stipulations that she wait until she is sixteen and that she dress as a boy named George to avoid attracting attention.

Despite these precautions, Katie as George, does attract the attention of two boys whom she ends up fighting. When 17 year old Jess Starkey is beaten by Katie he doesn't forget the humiliation, as we discover later on, to horrifying consequences. During their time in Badwater, Jack and Katie also meet the sheriff, Sheriff Benson and his Deputy, Adam Summerfield. Katie is immediately attracted to tall, handsome Adam.

Upon their return to their home on the slope of the volcano, Katie and her father resume their life but soon discover that things have changed. One day while hunting pheasant, Katie finds a man's glove in a pine grove. Not long after, during the summer, Katie has a surprise encounter with Jess Starkey that turns ugly and ends terribly. In a life and death situation, Katie's father comes to her rescue with the result that their lives are changed forever. They now realize that the peaceful existence they once knew is gone and that this will bring more people to their volcano. When Jess Starkey does not return from his trip up the volcano, this sets in motion an sequence of events that bring both tragedy and happiness to Katie.

While I enjoyed the beginning of the book and the way the plot was initially developing, my feelings changed after Jess Starkey's death. The book's unique setting and the hint of tragedy and romance made it initially very appealing. However, after Katie's encounter with Jess, I felt author James Nelson took the story in a disappointing direction that was increasingly violent with both murder and lying becoming the norm for the two main characters as well as the two supporting characters. And these actions seemed to be done with little compunction and not much internal conflict. It was as though they felt they had little choice but to do what they did.
I thought about it. I had killed a man. I, Katie MacDonald, an otherwise nice enough person, had hunted another human being like an animal. I'd figured out his path, hidden, waited for him, surprised him, killed him. Put an arrow through him just like a deer.
Could I have let him walk away?
I didn't see how.

I felt there were other choices Katie and her father could have made that were wiser, more honest and more in tune with the way the author had initially developed their characters  in the novel. They were portrayed as peaceful people who simply wanted to live their lives in a simple manner. Jack MacDonald abhorred the violence that was encroaching on his life in Little Fish and so he moved far away so as not to be a part of it. They both respected all living things and killed only the animals they needed for food.

Instead we see Jack as a man who lies to cover up a murder and thus sets the example for his daughter Katie, to do the same. He does this despite recognizing that the Sheriff is a very understanding and intelligent man who likely has an idea of what has happened and who might understand the circumstances. Perhaps that is why Jack never reveals to Sheriff Benson the truth - he knows what happened and as the law he has decided not to proceed further.

I found it particularly disturbing that Katie could simply move on with her life, without much thought as to what she did.When questioned by Sheriff Benson,  Katie doesn't offer him the truth, although she calls it that - she lies and she knows it.

"Technically, that was the truth. I didn't follow him around the trees. But in my heart I knew I was lying. I didn't follow him around the trees, because I followed him a deadlier way."
The author seems to suggest that because it's probable Sheriff Benson knows the real truth behind what happened to Ben Starkey,  this makes what happened fine. The reader knows the Starkey's were violent, bad men and so does the Sheriff who represents the law. And as the law, he has decided to leave things be. Justice was done. By our standards today, this seems immoral and unjust. Certainly Katie in her own mind, feels completely justified in her actions and the book ends on an almost "happily ever after" tone.

On The Volcano has a unique setting -- a cabin on a volcano in a western setting. The smoking volcano is a symbol of the violence that is an undercurrent in  their lives - just waiting to erupt. The plot is also unusual for a young adult novel in that it focuses on a young girl in a western setting who is involved in series of tragic events but who overcomes these obstacles to find happiness and love.

I am not familiar with any of James Nelson's previous works, all non-fiction. On The Volcano is his first young adult novel, published at the astonishing age of 91! That in itself makes this work unique.

Book Details:
On The Volcano by James Nelson
New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons    2011
272 pp.

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