It started with the design of the book--I don't know that I should be talking about this before I talk about the plot, but it's what we first notice about a physical book, right? I like this book's squarish shape, its spot illustrations, the white space around and between the lines of text. I even like the slightly criss-crossed font of the title, and I like the subtitle: "a novel of snow and courage." I wish more novels for 9- and 10-year-olds were just this size and shape: fat but with lots of room on the page.
The novel is about a pig named Flora who lives on a farm where they train sled dogs. Flora is fascinated by everything going on outside her pig pen, but her only source of information is a supercilious (but kind of cool) cat named Luna, a champion rat killer and good storyteller. Both Luna and Flora's mother try to banish thoughts of adventure from Flora's head--in fact, I'm going to quote what they say, so you can see how the author uses simple language in ways that stick in your head.
Flora's mother: "We are farm pigs, and farm pigs are not in control of their lives. Our food is brought to us each day, and if we ask for more than that, it will make us unhappy and ill-tempered."See how it sounds old fashioned but not flowery? Where some writers would have indulged in 19th century diction, Kurtz sticks with words kids know.
Luna: "You don't have to look for trouble. It will find you. And when that happens ... keep up that great spirit and make a plan, because nine lives is a state of mind."
But back to the story: Flora takes a risk and finds herself aboard a ship bound for the South Pole. She thinks she'll be pulling a sled alongside the huskies, but to her surprise, she's chained to a box in the rat-infested hold. Her only company is a cat who doesn't have much rat-killing experience and a cabin boy who's fallen out of favor with the crew.
I want to keep telling you what happens next, but I don't want to give away too much of the story. Suffice it to say that things go from bad to worse. But the worst of the worst is probably the moment when Flora's new friends bury her in a shallow hole in the ice and leave her alone for two days to keep her safe from a cook who wants to slice her up and eat her. What makes this moment so tough is that until then, Flora truly doesn't realize why she was brought on the adventure in the first place.
What makes this book so readable is the balance between the dark and dangerous situations Flora finds herself in and the buoyant, indomitable spirit she displays. She's just so ridiculously cheerful that you can't help but love her. At the same time, she probably would have driven me crazy if she wasn't always facing danger and unkindness.
Now, to be clear, this is not a book that appears to be in any way realistic. I did not learn anything about South Pole exploration or sled dogs or wilderness survival or seafaring. The solutions to most problems in the story are dubious. For example, Flora stops the rats in the hold from eating her dinner by turning backwards and kicking them in the head with her hind legs without looking. I assume pigs do not actually do this.
But that's a perfect example of something kids will not care about. As an adult, I found the absurdity a barrier to my emotional engagement. But I don't think kids will be concerned.
And while the solutions to problems seemed fake, the stakes seemed real. When Flora leaves the farm behind, she leaves it for good. I don't have the impression at the end that she's ever going to see her mother or Luna again. Instead, she embraces the uncertainty of her future. This conclusion, while indisputably happy, left me a feeling that the world is wide and almost overwhelming, the possibilities are endless. It's a big feeling for a pretty small book, and one that I would like to pass on to my students.