Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Bolt from the Blue: Jolted: Newton Starker's Rules for Survival by Arthur Slade

Newton Starker knew he would most likely die from a lightning strike.

It would all happen in the blink of an eye. Zap!

One fried fourteen-year-old Newton, the last male heir of the Starker line.

In a parallel universe to that of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, Newton Starker knows that he, too, is stalked by a miscreant and malevolent force, a sudden bolt of lightning, perhaps from the blue of an innocent spring sky, the same force that has killed his mother. Without the physical mark on his forehead, Newton nevertheless wears the psychological scar of his family's fatal curse.

Unwilling to remain secluded for life in the concrete geodesic dome his father had built in a vain attempt to safeguard his mother, Newton throws all his energies into learning the art of self-preservation at an eccentric boarding school, the Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival, a quirky twist on the boarding school where students wear kilts and are advised to keep their Scots dagger, the sgian dobh, sharp at all times. Potts Academy, dedicated to the skills of survivalism in the wild or in the economic jungle of modern life, seems Newton's only hope of finding salvation from his fate, through the "fierce intelligence" which the school inculcates in its students.

Because his family's deadly history is well-known, Newton has had few friends: most kids have been well advised to keep their distance outdoors to avoid becoming collateral damage in the course of the execution of Starker curse. At Potts, though, Newton is quickly befriended by Jacob Clarke, part Scots, part black, part Mi'kmaq Indian, a prolific writer who is apparently unperturbed by proximity to a human lightning rod.

Like Harry Potter, however, Newton quickly acquires an enemy, a rival in the person of Violet Quon for the top marks which will put him into the Hall of Heroes. Violet is not above a bit of academic sabotage, and Newton is certain that she is the person responsible for his kilt dropping in the midst of his impassioned recitation of Bobbie Burns' "Red, Red Rose." Newton, a devotee of culinary art, manages to outscore Violet in their first kitchen combat--the "Mystery Meat" survival cook off, which he wins with his own recipe utilizing roadkilled ground squirrel in a French truffle-spiced quiche.

Acquiring the truffles for the dish brings Newton his second friend. Because of his fractured French, the shipment of truffles comes with a truffle-seeking piglet, Josephine, who seems to have powers far beyond the usual porker.

But Newton still needs expert advice in his search for survival, and for this he goes to the nearby nursing home where his 102-year-old great-grandmother, the only Starker known to have survived to old age, resides. Newton approaches the sour old woman gingerly, hoping to learn her secret, but what he hears seems impossible to carry out:

"I want to know how you've lived so long," said Newton.

"Spite, Great-grandson. Lovely, gorgeous, unyielding spite. I hate everyone--everyone I have ever met...."

"You hate everyone?"

"Even you.... I'll even outlive you, Newton." She pointed a crooked finger at him. "Would you like to bet on it?"

"No. Not at all."

Newton feels he must try his great-grandmother's solitary way to survival, but in the freshman class' first Outdoor Expedition, 48 hours of survival in the wilds, Newton discovers that he just doesn't have it in him to leave Violet hurt and alone in the woods, even to score marks on his way to the Hall of Heroes. And then, in probably the only unselfish act of her long self-preserving existence, Great-Grandmother Enid takes a bolt that is obviously intended for Newton, and his coming-of-age comes in a literal burst of light.

Arthur Slade's Jolted: Newton Starker's Rules for Survival is funny and poignant, a different sort of rite of passage story in an offbeat setting which somehow feels just right for Newton Starker. This story will resonate with early teen readers, kids who sometimes feel that adolescence itself carries its own kind of curse.

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