Reviewed by Rod McLary
There is something about Young Adult novels which immediately appeals to the discerning reader. Perhaps the appeal lies in the authenticity of the adolescent voice which hasn’t yet learned to dissemble and obfuscate. Perhaps it is the lived experience of navigating the no man’s land between childhood and adulthood which we all have done with varying degrees of success. Either [or both] could be the case with the voice of fourteen-year-old Zac Greene – the narrator of this debut novel by J A Cooper – as he takes the reader through his experiences in Alaska.
Not really wanted around the house by his mother as she struggles to complete a thesis for her PhD, Zac is sent to Alaska to spend some time with his estranged father whom he hasn’t seen for four years. It is winter in Alaska and very cold – ‘It’s a wicked cold, the Alaska winter, and can kill a man in a second’. The weather is not the only thing with which Zac has to contend as he struggles to connect with his father who would rather spend time with his girlfriend and a bottle of bourbon. Instead, he is burdened with his son who – in his turn – would rather be at home attempting to turn his dream of a relationship with Verity Miller into reality.
The visit does not start well and, when Zac looks around at the other families at the airport and their ‘natural and unrehearsed’ pleasure, he simply feels a ‘emotional train wreck at the pit of [his] stomach’ . His father is taciturn and difficult for Zac to read. But they persevere with varying degrees of success as the visit continues. The communication between father and son comprises one-way reprimands such as ‘I said turn the goddam thing anti-clockwise, pea-brain’ and ‘what are you, deaf?’ 
When Zac is allowed to take a sled out by himself, he hopes that their relationship may have turned a corner. He is instructed to stay with the groomed trails but, with adolescent bravado, Zac tries ‘something a little more interesting’ – which leads to his loss of the sled and the dogs. Zac is faced with a fifteen-kilometre four-hour hike back home – and the wrath of his father who has repeatedly said ‘never let go of the sled, dipstick’. After a violent confrontation which ends with Zac punched to the ground, he decides to abandon the attempt to reconnect with his father and return to his mother. To get to the airport, he – with more adolescent bravado – begins to hike. This decision leads to his being lost in the snow, being rescued by Stanley, and finally arriving at the airport. Along the way, Stanley – a rather battered Inuit – shares his native wisdom with Zac: It’s the lone wolf who’s in for the longest winter .
Through the course of the novel, Zac shares with the reader his thoughts and feelings as he traverses his vexed relationship with his father and the challenges of living in Alaska – even if temporarily. Zac also shares the backstory of his parents’ marital breakdown as seen through the eyes of a child. He has an engaging voice and he tends to be open and honest in how he sees the world and his place in it. There is an underlying self-deprecation in his words as well: Just when I think I’m home free, I’m back to my usual run of bad luck’ . But as in all good stories, there is personal growth too. Through his travails, Zac learns a little more about himself and, in spite of the rocky beginning to his relationship with his father, begins to understand and accept that his father does love him even if he is unable to express it in more conventional ways.
In his first novel, J. A. Cooper has crafted an engaging story of a young teenager being to traverse the rocky path between childhood and adulthood – and experiencing personal growth as well. The younger demographic for whom this book is written will enjoy much about Zac’s story as he negotiates the fractured relationship with his father.
A very enjoyable book.
J.A. Cooper [James] once spent six months tending sled dogs in Alaska. He has taught at schools in England and Australia. His stories and poetry have appeared in Dappled Things, Light Poetry Magazine and Quadrant. Something About Alaska is his first novel.
Something About Alaska
by J. A. Cooper
ISBN 978 098738 097 5