Oh boy. A Canadian wilderness trip with at-risk teens and two counselors who ask the kids to bare their souls each evening, meanwhile “testing” them by refusing to give basic instructions about how to find trails, put up tents, or portage canoes. Seventeen-year-old Ingrid, never an outdoorsy type, is appalled by the barbarity thrust upon her. But she has made a deal with her mother: if she successfully completes the three weeks in the wilderness, she can spend her senior year at a prestigious music program in London. So she counts the mosquitoes she has killed, shares a tent with an ex-con and a nature-loving jerk, hikes and canoes until she’s exhausted, all the while writing her mother sarcastic letters about the disaster. As the trip progresses, the “Dear Mother” letters get less frequent, and the descriptions of the experience get more intense.
A less subtle and skilled author would make this a simple survival story roughly along the lines of “teen learns about self in the wild.” But Younge-Ullman skillfully interweaves Ingrid’s wilderness experience with the sophistication of her background. Ingrid is the daughter of Margot-Sophia Lalonde, a “larger-than-life, riveting, take-your-breath away vivid and astonishing” opera singer who, with Ingrid in tow, has traveled over Europe, gradually building up a huge reputation, reaching a peak at Covent Garden, London. And then … curtain. Margot-Sophia loses her voice. Doctors, surgeons, can restore her speaking voice and some of the lower registers, but her career as an opera diva ends when Ingrid is 11. They retreat to Toronto, where they both struggle with Margot-Sophia’s depression, her obtaining an unglamorous day job … and her repeated insistence that Ingrid has no musical talent and a voice suitable only for singing in the shower. Interspersed with the descriptions of the wilderness trip and the sympathetic, intelligent ex-con’s perceptive efforts to make Ingrid talk about herself is a gradual revelation of a mother-daughter struggle, and also the tensions between Ingrid and her would-be boyfriend Isaac, stage-manager and admirer of Ingrid’s talent.
This is an excellent book. Very few authors can write convincingly about both the appeal of music and the challenges of wilderness treks. Younge-Ullman manages not just to achieve that feat, but to vary Ingrid’s narrative voice so that it captures her worship of her mother, her fury with her mother’s manipulation and depression, her deep affection for her stepfather, and her passionate love of singing and performance. Ingrid is a splendidly complex character, whose depths we increasingly appreciate right up to the very last pages of the book, when we find out what she has not told us. Usually, surprise endings have a cheap ring to them, but this one does not, because it fits in perfectly with the rest of the book. Don’t skip to the end! It will rob you of the shock that has been so beautifully prepared. I know, because I skipped, and though I was greatly impressed with Younge-Ullman’s artistry, I regretted missing the exquisite literary thrill of being blind-sided.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.