Most adventure stories for young adults don't go much below the surface of the story. Oh sure, there will be some sort of moral or lesson to be learned in some of them, but on the whole the action is what matters. The stories themselves aren't bad, but the books always seem to lack something in sophistication and too often have little or nothing to do with most young people's reality. Oddly enough the books that do the best jobs of dealing with subjects that are pertinent to young people are usually fantasy books set outside our everyday world. It's as if since the story doesn't take place on earth or in our time period the author has license to mention the subjects because he or she isn't dealing with reality.
So when I discovered South American author Isabel Allende, best known for her novels The House Of Spirits and Zorro, had written a series of books for young adults, I was intrigued as to what she would do with the genre. Allende usually does a remarkable job of mixing contemporary political and social issues into her novels without ever losing track of her responsibilities as a storyteller. With Harper Collins Canada issuing new editions of her trio of young adult titles under their Perennial Editions it seemed like as good as chance as any to check out if she was able to have the same success with this genre as she's had with other titles.
City Of The Beasts, first published in 2002, is the first of three books (the other two being Kingdom Of The Golden Dragon and Forest Of The Pygmies) that see teenaged Alexander Cold flying halfway around the world with his grandmother Kate. Kate is anything but your average grandmother, being a writer for naturalist magazines whose assignments invariably take her well off the beaten path to check out rumours of various exotic and dangerous creatures. At 15 Alex's world is being turned upside down by his mother's battle with cancer. When his father decides that she will be better off taken for treatment in a hospital in Texas, Alex and his two sisters are sent off to live with their grandparents.
While he would have gladly joined his sisters in going to stay with his maternal grandmother, he's less than thrilled to be told he'll be spending the duration of his time with his dad's mom. When his father casually mentions that he should take his passport with him because it looks like he'll be going into the heart of the Amazon rain forest with Kate, he's heart sinks even further. When Alex finds out that he'll be joining an expedition searching for a mythological Yeti-like creature, simply referred to as The Beast, who is said to release a scent that paralyses its victims before it cuts them open with huge claws, his only consolation is since nobody has ever found the Yeti, the chances of them finding The Beast will be pretty slim.
However, Alex can't deny that he's not excited about the trip as well. He's been learning in school about the effects of civilization encroaching on the rain forest and the damage being caused to both its human and non-human inhabitants. As he's about to discover, the reality of the situation is a lot more deadly and shameful than anything he's read or studied in school. He first hears rumours of it when he and his grandmother reach the small village that serves as their staging post for their exploration. Santa Maria de la Lluvia is considered the last outpost of civilization, and its dominated by the compound of a South American businessman Mauro Carias, who is always accompanied by the commander of the local army barracks, Captain Ariosto. While the army is nominally supposed to be there to protect the indigenous peoples on behalf of the government, the reality is that many of the local officers are in the pay of businessmen like Carias, and act as their personal armies.
Alex is soon taken under the wing of their guide's daughter, Nadia, who is about two years younger, but far more experienced in the ways of the jungle and its people. Shortly after he arrives she introduces him to one of her friends, Walimai, a shaman from one of the local tribes. When she tells Alex that he is accompanied by the spirit of his late wife he doesn't know whether she's teasing him, or simply deluded for believing such nonsense. However, shortly before they are to leave he has an experience that forces him to change his attitude somewhat. Carias takes them on a tour of his compound where he has caged a magnificent black jaguar. Standing outside the wire fence looking in at the animal Alex experiences an out-of-body event where he feels like he becomes one with jaguar. When he explains what happened afterwards to Nadia she tells him that he has discovered his animal totem, and the jaguar will always be part of him.
As they journey deeper into the jungle and Alex and Nadia encounter more of the people who live there, including a tribe who have had little previous contact with outsiders. The People of the Mist, so named for their ability to seemingly materialize and vanish into thin air, have managed to avoid contact with others until now because of the remote location of their village. However, Carias and Captain Ariosto have plans to exploit their land, and have developed the foolproof means of removing them as an obstacle. It's up to the two young people to come up with a way to foil them, and in the process they discover the secret of the mysterious Beast and other secretes of the Amazon basin.
Allende has done a remarkable job of not only writing an adventure story that will capture the imaginations of young people, but will also introduce them to the plight of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin and the threat they face from the exploitation of their environment. At the same time she opens their eyes to the possibility that there is more to the world than what meets their eyes. Both Alex and Nadia experience events that can't be explained away by logic or other rational means, yet at the same time everything that happens to them takes place in what is obviously our modern world, not some fantastical creation of the author. However, the most important message that she's able to convey, and all this without once preaching or distracting from the quality of her story, is that no one people have the answer as to what is civilization. While the ways of The People of the Mist are obviously completely unsuited for life in a city, that doesn't make them any better or worse than we are, just different.
Travelling around the world with Alex Cold, his grandmother Kate, and his new friend Nadia, will introduce readers to the amazing diversity of life that exists in the world around us. Whether it's on the physical plane experiencing the wonders of nature — both beautiful and frightening — and the importance of learning to co-exist with whatever environment you find yourself in, or the possibility of things existing that defy explanation, Allende opens your eyes to the fact that the world is quite a bit different from what we see every day. With so many amazing things to discover here on earth you may just find yourself wondering who needs fantasy or science fiction after all.