February 27, 2012

Ghosts of the Pacific

by Philip Roy
Ronsdale Press
251 pp.
Ages 11-14

Though the term "ghost" suggests frightening disembodied souls, it can also refer to a faint trace, a remote possibility, a false image, or even be a synonym for our spirit.  As such, the title of Philip Roy's newest book in The Submarine Outlaw Series, Ghosts of the Pacific, could evoke horror or things left behind or future possibilities.  Fortunately, Philip Roy has not chosen to emphasize one over another, but instead embraces a more comprehensive definition, resulting in another fabulously rich tale of adventure.

Since fourteen, Alfred has been exploring the world using a twenty-foot, diesel-electric submarine built by junkyard genius and friend, Ziegfried.  Accompanied by his crew of Hollie, his dog, and Seaweed, a seagull, Alfred has travelled from his home in Newfoundland around the Maritimes (Submarine Outlaw, Ronsdale Press, 2008), across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean (Journey to Atlantis, Ronsdale Press, 2009), and down the St. Lawrence River (River Odyssey, Ronsdale Press, 2010).  Now 16, Alfred is ready for his postponed trip to the Pacific Ocean, choosing to travel northward through the Arctic and head for Saipan, part of the Mariana Islands.

Travel to Baffin Island seems easy enough, until a hunk of ice with dark pebbles turns out to be a polar bear that chases a kayaking Alfred back to the sub.  This first "ghost" hails the onslaught of dangerous "growlers" (calved ice that has broken off icebergs and floats just below the surface) that are virtually imperceptible until they hit the sub, repeatedly.  Inattention in this unforgiving landscape puts Alfred and his crew into deathly peril several times (even if he does get some great photo ops).  However, it also provides him with the chance to meet Nanuq, an elder in Igloolik, who sadly talks of the sea dying and its inevitable destruction of all.

Death begins to haunt the story even more.  Travelling blindly beneath impassable ice, searching for occasional small breaks to allow for a battery recharge, and getting stuck for days in shifting ice brings out Alfred's fear but also his resilience and resolve.  His extraordinary character continues to help him endure the anguish of typhoons, the violent death of animals, the blight of garbage and the suffering of others.  Still, he enjoys the company of new friends, including a young girl named Cinnamon, learning more about the world, and consciously making a difference whenever he can.

Alfred has undertaken this journey to explore unbelievable places and their tragedies, from Franklin's expedition in search of the Northwest Passage ("...the Arctic was guarding them in an icy grave"; pg. 64), to Amelia Earhart's 1937 disappearance, to the graveyard of warships in the Bikini Atoll, and ultimately to the island of Saipan where Japanese civilians and officers chose suicide rather than surrender to the Allied forces in 1944.  But along his journey, his interest in the past brings him face-to-face with the tragedies of the present:  fishing trawlers whose illegal practices kill countless dolphins, sharks and turtles; acres of plastic garbage, twenty to thirty feet deep, trapping and killing all life, while slowly decomposing and killing even more; and the irradiated land and waters of the Bikini Atoll, testing grounds for atomic and hydrogen bombs during World War II.  Luckily, Philip Roy capably brings Alfred to see choices in his future that will allow him to continue exploration while addressing his new preoccupations.

Like a great adventure, Ghosts of the Pacific does not allow the reader the opportunity to be distracted or bored.  Even seemingly mundane tasks such as exercising or finding shelter become significant experiences which the reader must follow until settled.  The plot is relentless, always enriched with unexpected subplots, steeped in a multifaceted landscape of cold and warmth, hardness and softness.  Though Cinnamon who is still a vague character may take on a more important role, those of Ziegfried, Sheba, Hollie and Seaweed provide the depth to carry Alfred on further journeys.  Fortunately, I hear Philip Roy is already working on a fifth book in the series.

The video below captures Philip Roy talking about his Submarine Outlaw Series, including the submarine.
Uploaded by Overmarsh on February 12, 2010 to YouTube.com

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