Hatchet meets Maybe a Fox in this “gripping, suspenseful” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) novel about Edgar, a boy who has lost the ability to speak and can only bark, and his dog Benjamin as they travel through the freezing Yukon wilderness in order to stop Edgar’s mother from making a huge mistake.
Eleven-year-old Edgar’s mom is making him move. Again. This time, they’re headed to a tiny town in the Yukon called Dawson, Alaska. For once, though, Edgar is excited. They’ll be housesitting, and with the house comes a dog: Benjamin.
It’s love at first sight when Edgar first spies the massive Newfoundland, and soon Edgar starts liking lots of other things about Dawson. But just as soon, he starts noticing things. The kinds of things his mom did before; the kinds of things that caused them to move so much. The kinds of things that will surely, absolutely cause them to move again. Unless he can warn the people who are about to be hurt.
Yet just when Edgar needs his voice most…it’s gone. Suddenly, he can’t communicate with anyone but Benjamin. So, with the dog by his side, Edgar embarks on a dangerous journey across the frozen Yukon River in search of answers—and a way to keep his mother from upturning their lives all over again. But the wilderness is not kind. Edgar and Benjamin find themselves in a situation right out of Edgar’s favorite Jack London story. With cracking ice, freezing water, bone-chilling temperatures, and looming, lurking wolves, Edgar must find a way to survive before he can stop his mother from wrecking everything.
North to Benjamin FLIGHT IT WAS A SMALL AIRPLANE, and Edgar was small inside it. The airplane throbbed; he throbbed. He was in an aisle seat, with little to see. So he was thinking about Benjamin, the dog he was going to be looking after in the new place, and what conversations they might have. Edgar had never had to care for a dog, but Benjamin sounded like he would be a good friend, just from his name—soft fur, big paws, eyes that would love a boy no matter what.
Edgar’s mother had mentioned Benjamin at the beginning of telling him that they were leaving, as if this were all going to be a big adventure with a lovely dog at the end of it.
Roger, who could be fierce, had cried when he’d heard Edgar’s mother’s plans. Roger used to poke Edgar hard in the chest sometimes with two fingers to get his attention. Probably Roger didn’t mean to hurt him; probably he didn’t know his own strength. And probably he didn’t know about Edgar’s mother, her history, how she would just leave when something no one else could taste turned sour.
Or—when she just got tired, or scared. When something spooked her.
So now, on the airplane, Roger wasn’t there. Yet he had given Edgar a camera. And across from Edgar was a boy who, for a moment early in the flight, had looked as if he too might poke Edgar hard in the chest. So Edgar had pulled his ears back, not wiggled them really, just used his ear muscles to stretch his cheeks flat and make himself still and invisible. He had learned the trick from Roger, from being around him, from not wanting to be noticed.
The tough boy was sleeping now, snuggled up against his mother, who was also sleeping, her long black hair falling against her boy’s cheek. The boy’s mouth was opened slightly. His hair too was beautifully black against the caramel of his skin. And this was the funny thing: now that Edgar had a camera, so much of what he saw looked like it should be a picture.
Edgar’s own mother was staring out the window. Every so often she said, “Edgar!” and he would strain against her and try to see. If he were in his mother’s seat, he would probably capture the snowy white peaks of the mountains he knew were out there. But right now he wanted to take a picture of the sleeping boy.
Edgar stretched down, pulled up his knapsack. One of the zippers was broken, so he used the other. The camera was underneath his underwear and an empty bottle that he hadn’t bothered to fill with water at the airport in Whitehorse that morning. He wished now that he had some water, because they had missed breakfast. It would be good to sip on something and not feel so hungry.
His camera was heavy, a Nikon. Roger had shocked him with the gift. Sometimes Edgar and his mother left in a hurry in the middle of the night, but this had been a cold sort of leaving, in the day, with everything plain. Roger’s cheeks had been wet. He’d been holding himself, but Edgar had known it would not work. When his mother got around to leaving, there was nothing you could do to change her mind.
Edgar knew only what Roger had told him about the camera. In the dim light the flash might go off, and the boy might wake up and come after Edgar. There was a setting you could use if you did not want a flash. But which one was it? Maybe the one just below automatic. The boy snuggled closer into his mother’s hair. He was starting to drool.
Edgar zoomed in a little bit, to get the boy’s face. He pressed the button halfway to focus. Then click. No flash. He opened up the screen to look: blurry.
In low light you had to hold the camera very still. Roger had told him that, too.
Edgar held the camera steadier, even while the airplane shook. Then the boy yawned and opened his eyes. Edgar could not be invisible. He was sitting right across the aisle, pointing a big camera. “Hey!” the boy said, and his mother woke up too.
Edgar clicked. Then he quickly turned off the camera and stuck it back into his bag. He could feel the boy glaring at him. Edgar pulled his ears back again. He became part of the seat.
“Edgar?” his mother said. The airplane began to bounce. Edgar clutched his bag on his lap and shook in his seat, held in by the belt. The other boy clung to his mother, and the flight attendant gripped her seat tighter but did not look alarmed even when the wings shook so much, they seemed to be flapping.
Then the plane was heading down. A little fast? No one else seemed concerned, but Edgar’s mother squeezed his hand so hard, he had to make his own hand soft, soft, almost disappear in her grip, so that it wouldn’t hurt too much.
“Almost there, baby,” she whispered to him in the voice that he liked the most. There were more bounces, but it was over soon, and they were on the ground.
Suddenly everyone crowded into the squashed aisle, so Edgar stayed seated, clutching his bag. The angry boy stood over him, glaring. Finally the line moved and Edgar rose. Cold air rushed in from the open door at the back of the plane.
There were plenty of other boys on the plane, but Edgar was smaller than everyone else, as usual. At the door Edgar braced himself because the flight attendant looked like she wanted to pat his head. But she didn’t. The steps to the ground were metal. Edgar had to fumble in his pockets for his mittens before he held on to the handrail. The cold air felt like a smack in the face. He was careful on the stairs, and did not look around until he was safely on the ground.
Snow-covered hills, bright white. A long empty runway. The terminal looked like a few wooden boxes you might use for now, while you were building a real airport.
The line of passengers stretched out, and then, like an accordion, it bunched up again at the door of the farthest of the boxes. Edgar wasn’t being careful by then, and he ended up standing right behind the angry boy. Edgar expected him to turn, maybe even to pucker his cheeks and spit. Yet the boy did not move. Still, somehow, Edgar felt his legs were not underneath him anymore. He was free and floating and bam! He hit the ground, his hip first, then his elbow.
If this had been the schoolyard—almost any schoolyard—whoever had tripped him would’ve kicked him maybe too, and Edgar would have tried to roll away. But adults were standing all around them. The boy with the caramel skin was just turning around now.
And Edgar’s mother had missed it. “Edgar! Careful. It’s slippery!” she said.
“I know.” Edgar got up. Who had tripped him?
Then from behind: “I saw what you did, Jason!” It was a skinny girl in a parka, with large brown eyes. Who was Jason? Right next to Edgar a tall, blond, strong-looking boy, with an open jacket and no hat or gloves, smirked at the girl.
“That kid was taking pictures of everybody on the plane!” he said. The other boy, whose picture Edgar had taken, didn’t seem angry at all now, just amused.
“Last I heard, it’s not against the law to take pictures,” the girl said.
Then the line moved inside the small, boxy building that was already full of people, families waiting. The girl said directly to Edgar, “Don’t worry about Jason Crumley. He’s a jerk anyway.”
Edgar didn’t know what to say. His neck was roasting. Crumley had moved far enough away, across the room, that he couldn’t pull another dirty trick.
“Are you new to Dawson?” the girl asked. “Where are you staying? We get a lot of people but usually not till summer. My mom lives in Whitehorse—I was just visiting with her—but I’m based here in Dawson. My dad’s coming to pick me up. Do you need a lift? There’s no taxi anymore. The Buick broke, and it was going to be too expensive to get the parts sent up. Is somebody picking you up?”
Her eyes were lively, and her nose was curved, how? As if everyone’s nose should be as strong. Her skin was caramel too like the one boy’s, her hair blond like the other’s. And her teeth were brightly white and thoughtful, somehow. (How could teeth be thoughtful?) Edgar didn’t know what to say, which question to answer. His mother knew the details of what was supposed to happen next. They were borrowing a house; there was a word for it. Someone was going to meet them when they arrived.
“We are housesitting,” Edgar said finally, when he thought of the term. Then he turned away in a broiling state and examined his boots.
They had to wait for their bags. “Why did you take that picture?” the girl asked.
“I was given a new camera,” Edgar said quietly. “I was just trying it out.”
“Well, my father’s girlfriend, Victoria, who is a professional photographer, told me you should never take anyone’s picture if you don’t know their name.”
Edgar nodded. Was he supposed to ask her name now? Probably, he thought, but he felt unsure, so he pressed his lips together and hummed. Jason Crumley was surrounded by family, but he was staring at the girl as if he wanted to get back at her for speaking up. And she looked like she couldn’t wait for him to try.
Edgar moved close to his mother, then watched as the little baggage car came up from the runway, the trailer loaded with everyone’s things. A man in a parka hoisted the bags off the trailer and shoved them through a small swinging door, and the people crowded closer and pulled aside the luggage that belonged to them.
“Could you get our stuff?” Edgar’s mother said. She was paying attention to the parking lot out the window, filled mostly with pickup trucks.
The girl now had drifted away. Edgar wanted to say something more to her, but what? All his thoughts felt gummy. Then Jason Crumley moved toward the bags too. Edgar didn’t want to chance another dirty blow, but there seemed little choice. It was such a small room, there was nowhere to hide.
But Crumley didn’t bother with him now. He lifted a big red hockey bag onto his shoulders and staggered back through the crowd toward his mom. The other boy, with the caramel skin, also pulled a hockey bag onto his shoulder. Maybe they’re on the same team, Edgar thought. Edgar’s mother’s black suitcase arrived then too, and Edgar used all his weight to jerk it away from the growing pile. It had wheels. He rolled it to his mother, who was still eyeing the parking lot.
There wasn’t even anywhere to buy coffee, and she had gone the whole morning so far without it.
Not to mention breakfast.
Edgar returned to the baggage pile and pulled out his own knapsack, the purple, perfectly good one that someone had thrown out just two weeks ago in Toronto. Edgar had found it on the street in the garbage and had brought it home, although he’d had no idea he would be using it this soon. Well, maybe he had had some idea. When his mother had gotten that look, when winter had taken over her face, especially when she had eyed Roger that way. Then Edgar had known.
The really long flight, eight and a half hours, had been most of yesterday, starting from Toronto on a much bigger plane. Now they had moved so far north, back into real winter, it was hard to believe it was actually April.
They had just two bags each, a big one and a carry-on from the plane. Everything else had been left behind: his bed, his drum set, his microscope, his bottle collection, everything. So while other people were still pulling their bags from the pile, Edgar and his mother stood aside and watched. Hockey players struggled with bags and sticks, leaving in large groups. Jason Crumley and his family left too. Gradually the parking lot emptied. Edgar and his mother remained inside but were the last people standing by their bags. Even the airline workers had disappeared.
Edgar had assumed that the lively girl’s father had picked her up, maybe when Edgar had been wrestling with the bags. But then she surprised him—she walked out of the women’s washroom carrying her own small backpack. “I’m Caroline,” she said.
Edgar’s mother said, “I noticed you from before. You were awfully nice to stick up for my Edgar.” She lowered her voice, although Edgar could still hear her perfectly well. “He doesn’t stick up for himself, ” she said.
“Jason’s been picking on new kids since, like, forever,” Caroline said. And then, sounding very grown-up, she said, “I’m not sure if you’ve arranged for a ride, but my father is coming to get me and we could give you a lift.”
“Someone was supposed to be here to pick us up,” Edgar’s mother replied. When she unzipped her big bag, looking for something, it exploded with her clothes and bathroom things, which had all been squished in tight, tight. Caroline knelt to help her, so Edgar sat a distance away and took out his camera.
“Don’t you bloody well take my picture like this!” his mother said. And then to Caroline she said, “Sorry! I don’t usually swear,” which wasn’t true, entirely. And then to Edgar again: “You promised me.”
He had promised her: to be normal, whatever that was. To fit in. To be just like every other boy and not make trouble even by being too quiet. To not make a commotion—“commotion” being a word he had learned when he was really small. Also, “commotion” being the property of his mother, hers to make. There was not enough commotion to go around so that he, too, could make some.
Edgar blinked back at her so that she understood—of course he would keep his promise. He just wanted to see what that last photo, of the boy on the plane, looked like. Had Edgar kept his hands still enough?
The boy’s mouth was open. One fist was clenched, and the other was holding tight to his mother. His eyes looked like what? Like he had wanted to bash whoever was holding the camera.
In the airport bathroom everything was brown and smelled old. Edgar studied his own face in the mirror. He could not see the camera hanging from his neck, just the strap with the yellow lettering. He pulled his ears back again, tried to disappear in front of himself to see if he could.
In a room like this he would have to turn brown too. His hair was brown already. If he stayed out in the sun, his skin could brown quite a bit.
Like Caroline’s and the boy’s in the picture.
When he returned to the main room, he saw their bags piled and no one else there. His mother and Caroline were outside by the window. His mother puffed on a cigarette, then clapped her hands together in the cold, looking in the distance. Caroline was talking, talking. Edgar took a picture of the bags—his mother’s was not quite closed but had the nose of the hairdryer sticking out where the zipper would not shut.
A sign above the public telephone near the door said DAWSON TAXI and gave a number, even though Caroline had said the taxi was not running. So Edgar went outside and told them.
“It’s an old sign,” Caroline said. “Believe me, that Buick doesn’t go anymore. But my dad should be here soon.”
“A guy was supposed to pick us up,” Edgar’s mother muttered. She blew smoke into the cold air. “It was all arranged.”
Edgar looked down the road to where his mother was staring. “Do you remember his name?” he asked.
“Well, that would be something, wouldn’t it?” his mother said. “I thought I had it in my book.” The book was sticking slightly out of her pocket now.
“Regina’s friend?” Edgar said.
“The people who own the house we are borrowing are friends of Regina’s sister’s boyfriend’s parents,” his mother said. “Don’t say anything. It’s all arranged.”
She said this last bit in a weary voice. She wasn’t only worried about the guy, Edgar recognized. She was also worried about money. They were poor. They didn’t have money, or much money, for anything, really. It was a miracle that Edgar had been allowed to keep the camera. But they had moved quickly; maybe there hadn’t been time to sell it. His mother had wanted to put a lot of distance between them and Roger. The hotel last night, in Whitehorse, that had been a miracle too—after all the long hours of flying from Toronto. Normally, in a new place, they stayed with others. They slept on couches, not on queen-size beds big enough to bounce on all you wanted.
But there was no other place in Whitehorse, and they didn’t know anyone.
“Maybe we could walk,” Edgar said.
“Oh, brilliant!” his mother blurted. “So much for being a little genius. Anybody could think of that!”
Edgar felt his face burn. He knew he should not look her in the eye.
Caroline waited, then said cautiously, “We could hitch.” She seemed to like thinking about problems and what to do about them. “Whoever comes by will pick us up for sure. But my dad thinks I’m waiting here for him.” She looked down the road as if she really wanted to try walking.
“How far is it?” Edgar’s mother asked, as if, actually, they might try after all.
“Only ten miles or so,” Caroline said. “We could do it in a couple of hours if we walked fast. But somebody would pick us up long before then.”
Edgar’s mother threw away her cigarette and went back inside.
“Maybe it’s too far,” Edgar said softly. He followed his mother. Inside was warm, at least. It was hard not to look at the sign for the taxi and think that maybe it was working after all. There were other signs too: posters for something called Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, which featured ladies in old-fashioned dresses kicking their legs high all together; and for the Downtown Hotel, “Home of the Sour Toe Cocktail”; and excursions to Bonanza Creek. Gold panning tours would begin in June. He also saw a poster with a strange picture of a large building that looked like a ship, only it was on land. SEASONAL TOURS OF THE NUMBER FOUR DREDGE, it said.
Caroline joined them inside again. “So, whose house are you sitting for, anyway?” she asked.
Edgar’s mother looked away in annoyance, probably because she couldn’t remember the name of the family, or possibly had not written it down. So Edgar said, “There’s a dog I will be looking after, Benjamin.”
Caroline’s eyes widened. “You’re staying in the Summerhills’ place? That’s just down the street from us! Benjamin is the Summerhills’ dog! I’ve been looking after him, since they couldn’t find a sitter. They’re down in Arizona.”
“But—” Edgar said.
Edgar’s mother interrupted him. “Yes, that’s it, the Summerhills. I don’t know them directly; it’s all through my friend, Regina. But somebody, this fellow who was supposed to pick us up, has the key. He has a funny name, if I remember. I can’t quite—”
“Ceese?” Caroline said, shaking her head, as if she knew what Edgar’s mother was going to say and yet still could not believe it.
“Yes, that’s it, Ceese!”
“He’s my father!”
“Well, where is he?” Edgar’s mother said. “Did he not tell you he was picking us up?”
“I tried calling him,” Caroline said. “He’s out of range, but that’s pretty usual around here. He’ll probably show up any minute now.”
Finally Edgar got a word in. He said, “I’m supposed to look after Benjamin. We’re going to be friends!”
Caroline looked at him. “We can all be friends,” she said, as simple as that.
Alan Cumyn is the author of several wide-ranging and often wildly different novels. A two-time winner of the Ottawa Book Award, he has also had work shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize, and the Trillium Award. He teaches through the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a past Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada. He lives in Ontario, Canada.