Newton Starker is a 14-year-old American boy freshly enrolled in the Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. At Potts, all students – boys and girls – wear a traditional Scot uniform of kilt, sporran, and dagger, and the curriculum takes a practical approach to matters such as business entrepreneurship, cooking, communication, and wilderness survival. This last is a problem for Newton, since for centuries the Starker curse has seen everyone on his mother’s side of the family killed by lightning.
Saskatchewan author Arthur Slade injects a lot of inventive stuff here. Newton aspires to be a chef, and adopts as his sidekick a truffle piglet (mistakenly shipped from France), which is inexplicably – and charmingly – able to understand English. Newton also befriends a nerdy kid who spouts obscure esoterica from ancient history. And he engages in a crush/feud with an intriguing and brilliant Korean girl.
What is missing from Jolted, however, is a story. Newton certainly faces a dilemma – how not to be killed by lightning – but not until the final pages does he actually confront this problem. Furthermore, he has no Harry Potter-esque special powers, and he gains no knowledge or skills that will help him in his struggle, so any potential solution to his problem remains obscure. For much of the book, Newton is simply a victim in waiting.
Slade tries to retrofit themes of confronting your fears and developing friendships, but by the end, the story dwells too much inside Newton’s head, and when he finally braves a lightning storm, the reason for his survival is ambiguous. Thus, all of Slade’s inventiveness feels assembled with the decided – and perhaps market-driven – aim of being quirkily fantastic.