September 10, 2019

The Starlight Claim

Written by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick Press
240 pp.
Ages 13+
September 2019

Nathaniel Crow is a sixteen-year-old boy who is looking forward to a few days away at his family's remote cabin during March break. Though he and friends Dodge Hoebeek and Paul Jokinen had planned this trip a year ago, having been well-schooled by Nate's father Burl how to work and repair the snowmobile, to clear snow from the solar panels, what to do if they encounter any trouble, and more, the trip becomes a solo endeavour of survival and gumption for Nate, one that will bring him face-to-face with his past in more ways than one.

From the onset of The Starlight Claim, Nate is tormented by nightmares of his friend Dodge who is presumed dead after he with younger brother Trick and father Art Hoebeek had attempted to cross a lake in November to deliver a propane fridge to their neighbouring cabin. With Dodge missing and haunting his dreams with guilt about Nate not joining them and perhaps preventing their dangerous venture, and Paul getting grounded, it's only Nate who goes up to the Crow camp, hopeful of perhaps finding Dodge or just proving himself more gutsy than he feels.

But when Nate arrives at the camp, an arduous journey by the Budd Car train and snowshoe, he discovers a couple of scary dudes making themselves at home in the Crow cabin. He can't even head up to the abandoned shack of old miner Japheth Starlight–the only spot where cell connectivity is possible–because it's evident they're using it for the same purpose. Instead Nate holes up in the Hoebeek camp and, discovering Dodge's drone, attempts to send a message home via an airborne cell phone, while planning his escape to catch the Budd Car the following day.
By this time tomorrow night, he'd be sleeping in his own bed. All he had to do was hang tight. Nothing was going to go wrong. Nothing else. (pg. 75)
Sadly, Nate's plans are thwarted by a third man, arriving by snowmobile, who advises Nate not to go near the Crow cabin, and takes away his skis and snowshoes. Though the lout who hides behind his mask tries to help Nate out somewhat, he's holding back some secrets and seems to know more about Nate, the two men and even Dodge than he will admit. That is, until Nate reveals what he has learned through his own surveillance and observation. Then it's a cat-and-mouse game for Nate to evade some ruthless criminals and stay safe while putting to rest a few ghosts.

Though The Starlight Claim refers to characters from Tim Wynne-Jones's Governor General award-winning middle-grade novel The Maestro (1995), it can be considered both a stand-alone story and an intergenerational sequel. It may follow the story of the son of The Maestro's protagonist and draw on a history that has impacted, though not limited, its main characters, but The Starlight Claim is still Nate's story. With Burl–whose own survival is told in The Maestro–as Nate's virtual mentor, reminding the teen how to handle most indoor and outdoor difficulties, Nate plays a steady hand and head throughout The Starlight Claim. He is his father's son and a young man who deserves to persevere.
"You remember yourself, son," Burl had said... (pg. 129)
Though most of the story takes place over the course of just a few days, it is peppered with memories of Nate and Dodge's time at the lake and what is known to have happened to Dodge and his brother and father. In this way, Tim Wynne-Jones reminds us how much our past experiences create our present. But never, never, never is it suggested that our pasts determine how our lives will turn out. If that was the case, Burl would have been an abusive father, an inconsiderate husband, and worse, and Nate would have learned the same from his dad. Instead we meet an incredible young man who is clever and resourceful and compassionate and makes very good choices, unlike Dodge and Burl's father.

The thriller aspect of Tim Wynne-Jones's The Starlight Claim will hook young adult readers with its bad guys and good guys and those who walk the blurred line between the two, while others will be grabbed by the mystery embedded in a family drama. Regardless of why they pick it up, teens will be riveted by the psychological journey of Nate as he balances what he knows, what he's been told and what he learns as he confronts an unyielding northern Ontario winter landscape and those who seek to claim what is not rightfully theirs.

Look for my interview with author Tim Wynne-Jones next Monday (September 16, 2019) as he answers questions about The Starlight Claim, creating an intergenerational sequel, and the power of the past and memory.

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