Review Blog

Nov 16 2017

On the free by Coert Voorhees

cover image

Carolrhoda Lab, 2017. ISBN 9781512429138
(Age: 15+) Themes: Survival. Disasters. Resilience. Santiago has elected to undertake the Bear Canyon Wilderness Therapy Programme in the Colorado mountains as a diversion from the juvenile justice system. A small party supervised by two counsellors sets off on a demanding trek designed to encourage the attendees to evaluate their lives and take responsibility for the future. Santi's character is brilliantly depicted. He's a good kid who has made a couple of poor decisions which lead to serious consequences. I found myself nodding at the entirely realistic portrayal of a lad lacking parental guidance whose ethnicity and socio-economic background limit his opportunities. When drug offences lead to criminal bad company and a custodial sentence, I groaned, not just because Santi's choices were so obviously flawed, but because this is daily reality for so many young people.
It was also refreshing to see the Wilderness Programme presented as a well-intentioned but slightly delusional attempt to help troubled youths who treated it with some derision. This was partly due to their adolescent cynicism and posturing but also because its organisation and staffing were imperfect.
Victor is another trekker and is a thoroughly unpleasant character who enjoys inflicting discomfort and humiliation on his fellows. Again, the revelation of his past steers the reader to understand and feel compassion for a young man whose future could have been so much happier and more fulfilling.
The interaction and tension between Santi and Victor and other party members is realistically portrayed and a natural disaster which leads the pair to fight for life in the company of Amelia, one of the camp counsellors is entirely plausible.
This is a good survival story which could have been brilliant. The crafting of characters, setting and events in the context of wilderness adventure created a fast-paced and satisfying read which unfortunately lost its way a little after the disaster. The inclusion of another aspect seemed contrived and unnecessary, cluttering a story which was developing nicely on its own.
This is still a worthy read and I know it will appeal to those who enjoy survival stories where individuals have to use skill and resilience to overcome significant physical and mental challenges.
I'd suggest this suits readers 15+ and the text contains some profanity which achieves a nice balance in presenting realistic teenage dialogue which the readership will identify with, but which is not particularly offensive or gratuitous.
Rob Welsh

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