Follow the River

Fairbanks author Paul Greci has been attracting national attention with his young adult adventure novels set in Alaska. He debuted in 2015 with “Surviving Bear Island,” in which an adolescent Tom Parker found himself alone and and stranded on a rainy sliver of land far out in Prince William Sound following a kayaking accident that separated him from his widowed father. Like all of Greci’s books thus far, it was written in the first person, and explored the challenges Tom faced and overcame in finding adequate food, water, and shelter, as well as his life struggles as he contemplated his relationships with his missing father and dead mother.

For his next two novels, Greci remained in Alaska but veered into the post-apocalyptic genres popular with young readers. Both are good, but “Bear Island” has remained my personal favorite owing to its realism. In Tom, Greci created a solid character and, in the island’s ecosystem, found plenty of dangers to confront him with. It’s a book that is very much about Alaska itself. So it was good to welcome Tom back in Greci’s most recent offering, “Follow the River.” And while it’s a return to the Alaska we’re familiar with, it still has an apocalyptic angle.

The first challenge Greci faces here is finding a way to get Tom alone in the wilderness again. He accomplishes this with a believable situation. Now orphaned, Tom has been staying with his best friend Billy’s family in Fairbanks. In the opening scene, he boards a rickety homemade canoe on a tributary of the Tanana River on a desperate run to get help for Billy and his father, both of whom are injured at the family’s remote cabin.

From there, the book breaks into two interrelated plot lines. It moves forward with Tom as he heads downriver in the boat, constructed from wood framing and cloth, and not designed for the rough waters ahead. Interspersed throughout the story are flashbacks to previous days, where a series of mishaps explain Tom’s rescue mission. And the apocalyptic angle? One of Interior Alaska’s pervasive summer wildfires is consuming the forests on both sides of the river, leaving Tom to travel through thick smoke and a burned out landscape.

With just three primary characters, Greci manages to explore several themes amidst the action. Tom is still grieving the loss of his father, whose voice periodically appears in his mind, offering cryptic advice. He’s also grasping the complexities of Billy’s relationship with his own father, Mr. Dodge. Billy’s father is capable of considerable kindness and generosity, but he’s also a barely recovering alcoholic, easily brought to a rage, sometimes becoming violent.

In Mr. Dodge, Greci has deftly handled a situation that is dealt with by far too many children. Billy both loves and fears his father, and as abused kids are inclined to do, he attempts to keep his dad pacified. The child is thus essentially forced to be the parent. Greci doesn’t take the easy route of casting Mr. Dodge as an ogre, and this is critical. Some of his readers will undoubtedly be in similar situations. What Greci offers here is a deeply flawed man who wants to do well but lacks self-control. Rather than condemn him, Greci gets at who Mr. Dodge is, and in doing so, explores the topic of family violence holistically rather than judgmentally. For young readers confronted with such a parent, this book offers solace.

Young readers are who Greci is targeting. As an educator, he’s aware of the fact that many boys in upper primary grades tend to quit reading altogether. It’s a problem his publisher is also focused on. Move Books describes its mission as publishing stories designed to keep boys engaged and actively reading at a point in their lives when cumulative distractions send them elsewhere.

Greci accomplishes this task by keeping the action moving swiftly. Chapters are brief, and most end in cliffhangers that will keep young readers turning pages. Fortunately, with Alaska, Greci has a landscape that can kill people in any number of ways. And from one cliffhanger to the next, Greci manages to rope in quite a few of them. His ability to find unique new dangers with each book is impressive.

A couple of those cliffhangers are foreshadowed early on as Tom takes inventory of his supplies while heading downriver. Noticeably missing are a life jacket and any sort of protection from bears. So we know part of what’s coming. Or we think we do. How the lack of bear spray or a gun will endanger Tom turns out to be a surprise, but one that will alert readers who have never visited Alaska that our bears are hardly the only four-legged threat to human safety in the backcountry. What could have been totally predictable and cliche scene – a near fatal bear encounter – is replaced with something entirely different. A good move on Greci’s part.

A longer term challenge looms if Tom gets out alive. An uncle in Michigan has been given custody over him, and Tom is faced with an imminent departure from Alaska, the only home he has known. The place that has formed him through the loss of both parents and two survival odysseys. His uncle holds very different values from those Tom has been raised with, and the end of the book indicates that if a third volume appears, it will, on some level, be addressing the cultural divide presently ripping America in two.

Given how thoughtfully Greci addressed family violence in this book, he would be well situated to examine this theme. It overlaps with the political conflicts hinted at in the closing pages of 2019 post-apocalyptic novel “The Wild Lands,” and could turn his attentions as a writer in new directions. Kids are witnessing significant societal breakdowns presently. Greci has the skills to show young readers that, despite our conflicts, we all have shared humanity. It’s a much needed message.

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks.

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