Stripped to Nothing
When you’re fourteen years old, life is filled with everyday challenges — dealing with high school for the first time, navigating social landscapes, managing parental difficulties. For Symone “Sym” Wates, being fourteen means all of these challenges plus one extraordinary fact: she’s been kidnapped and stranded in Antarctica.
In Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness, Sym is a lonely fourteen year old with eccentric habits. The novel opens with Sym’s declaration that she is in love with a man who has been dead for ninety years — Titus Oates, an explorer who died in Antarctica during Captain Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole. Sym relates to Titus’ fascination with the South Pole, and he doesn’t ridicule her hearing aids like other people. We quickly learn that while this relationship exists only in Sym’s head, it is one of the most important relationships in her life. Sym knows her love for Titus makes her an oddity, that other students call her “the retard who had an imaginary friend,” but Sym clings to Titus like a life raft. He is her one and only friend.
The other important relationship in Sym’s life is the one with her Uncle Victor. Brilliant and charismatic, Uncle Victor calls Sym his “righthand girl” and his “apprentice.” After Sym’s father died a difficult death, she and her mother rely on Victor (her father’s business partner) for financial and emotional support. Besides turning to her Uncle Victor for positive encouragement, Sym worships his “genius” and believes he is the “fount of all knowledge.” Believing that she was always a disappointment to her own father, Sym feels relief and security in knowing that Victor believes in her.
When Uncle Victor offers to take Sym and her mother to Paris for a few days, Sym is ecstatic to miss her chemistry final for the Eiffel Tower. But once on the train platform bound for Paris, problems cause Sym’s mother to be excluded from the trip, and Sym and Victor leave for their journey alone. Once in Paris, however, Uncle Victor begins to slowly reveal that he has alternate intentions than a tour of the Louvre. Victor announces that they will be going to Antarctica for a surprise trip, and although she wonders if her mother will worry, Sym is ecstatic; her lifelong dream is about to come true.
Once in Antarctica, Uncle Victor divulges that he’s not there to be a tourist. Uncle Victor plans to uncover an amazing scientific discovery, which requires him and Sym (and two other business partners) to dangerously travel far inland into the wilds of Antarctica. As Sym and Victor start their journey toward the South Pole, we can easily see that Uncle Victor is not the “marvelous” man that Sym sees him as. But it takes Sym the length of most of the book to realize that he is not the beloved uncle that she believed him to be. As Sym travels further into the never-ending whiteness of Antarctica, the truth about Uncle Victor’s madness slowly reveals itself and peels away the lies that surround Sym’s life.
This is a story of survival — not just in physical sense, but also in enduring lost hopes and beliefs in the ones we love and in ourselves. Victor’s obsession puts Sym in terrible danger and she must use all of her knowledge of Antarctica and her emotional relationship to Titus to survive Victor’s obsession and the fierce landscape that surrounds her. As Sym struggles alone in the wilderness, she must step forward to face her life and ultimately decide between life and death.
Blythe Robbins, a Californian living in New York City, is a geeky editor by day. At night, she can be found reading fiction or writing her blog: theonegoodthing.blogspot.com.