December 13, 2013

Ultra

by David Carroll
Scholastic Canada
978-1-4431-1918-4
192 pp.
Ages 11-14
September, 2013

It's highly appropriate that Ultra is one of the nominees for the Ontario Library Association's Silver Birch Fiction Award: it's a runaway success.  Personally, I tend to avoid reading sports-based novels.  (This sadly explains my original reluctance to read Ultra.  Don't be like me.) Too often, these books are immersed in the specific culture and jargon that are only familiar to those who participate in or watch that sport regularly.  It's very possible to be overwhelmed or bored by details of how a sport is played, the politics of sports organizations, and team dynamics.  Of course, those who do participate in or watch that sport have a very different perspective than those unfamiliar with it.  Authors should never assume that readers have prior knowledge about any sport, even one as socially embedded as hockey, for example.  But, regardless of running's integral role in Ultra, David Carroll caters neither to the novice nor the aficionado, and has no problems grabbing every reader's attention.  Kudos, David Carroll.  

The story of 13-year-old Quinn Scheurmann is interwoven through three strands: his present running of a 100-mile ultra-marathon; his reminiscences which often revolve around running and his dad; and the transcript of his interview with talk-show host Sydney Watson Walters.  These three lines of thought introduce the reader to Quinn, his family, best-friend Kneecap, and Quinn's running career.

At age 8, Quinn's dad challenges him to join him for a run, and Quinn learns how easy he finds it, due to his larger heart and reduced production of lactic acid, and how much running relaxes his brain.  Now, Quinn is the youngest participant in the Shin-Kicker 100, an ultra-marathon his dad has registered him in. 

It's a harrowing race for all competitors, all of whom are older than Quinn.  In fact, one who Quinn dubs "Dirt Eater" tells Quinn that he's too young and not cut out for the race. While Quitnn knows that he'll be running for almost 24 hours with only 2 official stops and has been well-trained by his dad about the "trail demons" (thoughts that get into your head and work against you), he's fortunate that Kneecap has given him her cell phone and that his little brother, Ozzie, agrees to be his pacer and encourage him by phone as he's running.  Even knowing how to avoid bears and how to run in the dark and how to keep hydrated, Quinn must face more surprises than he expects, especially in regards to what he learns about himself.

With every step, observation and revelation that Quinn makes, the reader pounds along with him.  Sometimes the trek is straightforward and swift and companionable; other times Quinn is navigating treacherous paths, both real and hallucinatory, and wondering if he should just give up.  As an ultra-marathoner himself, David Carroll knows that of which he writes, clearly evident from his first-hand descriptions of Quinn's trains of thought and the physical and emotional strains of the run. (Visit David Carroll's site at http://writerunrepeat.com/ to read his comparison of the pain of running versus writing.  You'll be surprised by his answer.) 

But don't be surprised when you get to reading Ultra and recognize it as an allegory for the approaches we can take to life.  You can go forth with some hesitancy.  You could plunge on, with hope and little trepidation.  Or you could stand by the sidelines and wonder about your choices. Or you could find a way to cheat. Whatever way we choose, we all end up at the finish line some time. Quinn's dad lets his son know about the approach he favours.
"Don't let anything stop you.  Nothing is impossible.  You'll be amazed what you're capable of." (pg. 41)
Regardless, Ultra is sure to take you along for an amazing run.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with this review. My kids, ages 13, 12, and 8, have all devoured the book and thought it was fantastic. I even enjoyed it myself. Great gift idea for any child who likes to read, regardless of genre preferences.

Anonymous said...

My son loved the book, He even chose it as his book talk book. He had a great time reading and reflecting on it. Great read for kids and adults alike!