January 26, 2012

First Descent

Written by Pam Withers
Tundra Books
262 pp.
Ages 12+

In kayaking, making a First Descent refers to being the first to successfully get down a wild river.  It would be a milestone for any kayaker, but for seventeen-year-old Rex Scruggs it also means completing the first descent on Colombia's Furioso River, which his Gramps did not complete sixty years earlier. 

Studying his Gramps' journal from that expedition, Rex learns much about the river and the people, but also of his grandfather's prejudicial views, especially to the indigenous Colombians, the indígenas.   It's hard to imagine how important this first descent would be to Rex, considering how crotchety and miserable his grandfather is, especially since Rex and his mom moved from Montana to Alberta prior to his grandmother's death.  It's even harder to believe that Gramps agrees to provide the remaining funds needed for Rex's expedition.  With the proviso that Rex be accompanied by two experienced expeditionists (Henrique and Tiago) and that he attempt to make contact with the Calambás family (who had helped his Gramps), Rex is on his way.

A parallel story of Myriam Calambás, a seventeen-year-old indígena, illustrates the hardships of her Colombian community brutalized both by the paramilitary soldiers who were established to fight the guerillas and the guerillas who have turned from supporting the poor to besieging their communities.  Although the Colombian army has gained the advantage over both corrupt forces in much of the country, they have no control over the more remote areas of the indígenas peoples such as where Myriam's family lives on the Furioso River.  Just as Myriam's grandmother, Abuela, had encountered Rex's Gramps sixty years earlier, Myriam and Rex will have their paths cross, bringing confusion, compassion and ultimately enlightenment to both their lives and the lives they touch. 

Few young adult novels could be identified as adventures nowadays but First Descent is certainly one.  Rex's kayaking expedition is the obvious adventure, one he undertakes to prove something to himself as well as to his irascible grandfather.  Pam Withers' experience with extreme sports (see her website for her bio and book list) serves the reader well, evocatively depicting Rex's need for the adrenaline rush, mixed with his confidence, sometimes arrogance, but tempered with expertise.  I checked out some unrelated videos showing kayakers on first descents in Colombia which were harrowing and impossible to imagine surviving; capably, Pam Withers' text takes the reader along for just such a ride.

However, Myriam and members of her community also experience adventures but on a daily basis, whether it be getting to market to sell their wares or going to the river to wash clothes.  Each activity is a hazardous undertaking, as they anticipate encounters with deranged soldiers, land mines, and even chemicals broadcast from planes to kill the coca plant but also harming the people and their food sources.  Any such affront could precipitate injury or murder, theft or devastation, kidnapping or recruitment, or a complete massacre.  Pam Withers' acknowledgements recognize the vulnerability of indigenous people throughout the world and her commitment to contributing a portion of earnings from this book to organizations that work for these groups. Just as Rex ultimately recognizes the incongruity of undertaking a first descent expedition while the indigenous people of the area fight for survival, I was comforted to know that my purchase and enjoyment of this book may provide some assistance for the indígenas or similar groups, courtesy of Pam Withers.

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