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North to Benjamin

by Alan Cumyn

Stephanie is nobody’s idea of a good mother. She doesn’t hold down a job; she’s emotionally immature; she moves from man to man; she drinks. But she’s all the family 11-year-old Edgar has. At the opening of this story, Edgar and Stephanie arrive in Dawson, Yukon Territory, from Toronto. Mom and son must relocate because Stephanie has secured a two-month house-sitting job; But for Edgar, the move is ill-conceived and disorienting with only one – albeit huge – appeal: the house comes with a dog.

Despite the initial misgivings, Dawson proves a welcoming place. The house is pleasant and the community friendly. Stephanie finds a job in the local bar and Edgar discovers a kindly teacher and a friend named Caroline. Best of all is Benjamin, a giant, aged, smelly Newfoundland dog.

Still, Edgar senses trouble. He sees his mother making a play for Caroline’s father, a man who already has a girlfriend. Edgar knows from experience this will not end well. Plus, there are tensions with a bully at school.

This could have been a classic boy-meets-dog, dog-saves-boy story, but Ottawa author Alan Cumyn (The Secret Life of Owen Skye; After Sylvia) mixes things up by throwing in fantastic touches. First, Benjamin begins to talk to Edgar in complete sentences. Then Edgar finds himself unable to use his own voice. He can only bark and develops an ultra-sensitive sense of smell. “He didn’t look like he was becoming a dog. He let his tongue hang out and he panted for a moment. It did feel oddly nice to do that.”

Things come to a head during a suspenseful night walk that sees Edgar and Benjamin setting out across the frozen Yukon River, which begins to break under their feet. A frightening episode follows, complete with the threat of wolves. The action is unrelenting, bleak, and mysterious. But unlike lesser action-adventure stories, this one is steeped firmly in character. Edgar is a complicated and convincing young boy, alert and self-reliant beyond his years because he’s had to learn how to read his mother and compensate for her unreliable behaviour. Sensitivity has become his survival skill.

The novel – which ends on an ambiguous, provisionally hopeful note – offers young readers a wilderness adventure with a bonus helping of complexity and originality.