(Review contains some spoilers.)
Twelve-year-old Chris never expected much more than a little family bonding time when his uncle Jack invited him for a sail along the Alaskan coast. Having lost his father the year before, he appreciates the chance to spend some time with his father’s brother. He didn’t expect Frank, an older boy sailing with them, who hates him on sight. And he never dreamed that an accident would strand him and Frank on a deserted shore with no way to call for help.
“The Skeleton Tree” by Iain Lawrence is an exciting adventure story for middle-schoolers, with two interesting young protagonists. As you’d expect, Chris and Frank have to learn to get along, at least to some extent, to find a way to survive.
But accord does not come easily. Not only does Frank carry some mysterious bitterness towards Chris, but he’s also not as experienced in the ways of the wilderness as he claims to be. Staying alive in the forest near the beach where they landed requires an arduous learning process for them both. It also involves a few gross-out moments, like eating raw barnacles and raw fish because neither of them can manage to make a fire! But it also strengthens their characters and finally, slowly, leads them towards friendship.
Chris doesn’t learn the secret of Frank’s identity until late in the story (despite the fact that it’s screamingly obvious to the reader). With it, he learns some overwhelming secrets about his own family, and has to find his way towards understanding and forgiveness.
Lawrence’s writing is well-suited to his target market — full of vivid descriptions and strong characterizations, but clear and easy to follow. He knows his subject well, and readers with an interest in nature will be enthralled by the way Chris makes friends with a raven and is chased by a bear. They may be creeped out by a few things, too, like the titular “skeleton tree” full of coffins with long-dead bodies in them. But the book is an adventure story, not a horror story, and there’s nothing overly terrifying in it. What Chris learns about his father’s double life may be a bit shocking for some in this age group, but there’s nothing explicit to deal with, and only the occasional mild profanity.
The story emphasizes the power of belief, but not really belief in God. Rather, Chris believes he sometimes sees his father’s ghost — whether while awake or asleep, he’s not quite sure — and he holds fast to what the ghost tells him. Some will see this supernatural element as a problem. However, on the plus side, there’s no actual effort to summon the dead. The appearances are more like visions — eerily accurate ones, but still visions.
But despite these issues that parents will want to be aware of, “The Skeleton Tree” is in general a good read for young lovers of adventure and nature.
Image copyright Delacorte Press.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.