Johnson’s second novel about dogsledding, after 2010’s Dogsled Dreams, is a page-turner full of white-knuckle action. Fourteen-year-old Vicky Secord is determined to win the White Wolf Classic to solidify her late father’s legacy as an expert musher. She misses him deeply and has thrown herself into mushing, neglecting her social life and resenting her mother, who Vicky is certain wants to leave Alaska for Seattle. During what was supposed to be a quick trip on the sled Vicky encounters a young stranger collapsed in the snow after a snowmobile accident. As Chris recovers, he reveals himself to be a smart aleck fresh in from Toronto with no knowledge of the outdoors. When their map is lost as a result of carelessness on Chris’s part, they are lost for days with only Vicky’s persistence and memories of her father’s wisdom to save them. The unlikely team’s bickering (and chemistry), the risks inherent to the wilderness, and the dogs’ personalities are all skillfully rendered. Readers will be riveted until the end. Ages 10–up. Agent: Caryn Wiseman, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"A page-turner full of white-knuckle action. . . . Readers will be riveted until the end."
"[A] thoroughly engaging and incredibly suspenseful survival story. . . Well-crafted, moving and gripping."
"Debut novelist Johnson links character to setting by showing how Vicky uses her knowledge of the land and copes with the elements, creates shelter, and snares animals in order to survive."
—The Horn Book Magazine
"The high-stakes adventure and episodic nature of the chapters will make this book an easy sell for reluctant readers."
—School Library Journal
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—Victoria Secord, a 14-year-old dog musher, has been struggling in the year since her father died. Her relationship with her mother is falling apart and her best source of comfort is the dog team that once belonged to her father. While out on a run with the animals, she finds and rescues an injured city boy, but after getting lost in a blizzard they both need rescuing. With the survival skills she learned from her father, Victoria must lead them all to safety. Written by a musher, this book is full of detailed descriptions of dog sledding and far northern survival. At times the technical details are more fully fleshed out than the character development, but they are never so complex as to break the flow of the story. Fast-paced plotting and suspense-filled writing will push readers along as the characters journey from dangerous disasters to lucky breaks. The high-stakes adventure and episodic nature of the chapters will make this book an easy sell for reluctant readers. Even in an arctic setting that can feel as foreign as a distant planet, Johnson keeps a sense of realism in this enjoyable adventure tale.—Elizabeth Nicolai, Anchorage Public Library, AK
In late winter in the Alaskan bush, a top junior dog sled racer loses her way in this thoroughly engaging and incredibly suspenseful survival story. The day after 14-year-old Victoria Secord places sixth in a race that qualifies her for the coveted White Wolf Classic, she hooks up her dogs and sets off for what she thinks will be a four-hour run covering an estimated 35 miles. She's heard that a local competitor "may be getting out of dogs" and is determined to have first pick of his champion leaders. But things get out of hand quickly. She finds and rescues an injured snowmobiler (Chris, a city boy her age) and in her haste to get him home, takes an unfamiliar trail as a blizzard builds; they're forced to spend that night (and more) outside. Johnson (Dogsled Dreams, 2010), a former musher, clearly writes from a deep well of experience. She admirably depicts the emotional life of a self-reliant, introspective and angry young musher mourning the loss of her beloved father, a trapper and river guide, who died in an accident 14 months earlier. Worried about dehydration, hypothermia, and food for both dogs and themselves, Vicky draws on memories of experiences with her dad to guide them. Though Chris' ignorance of outdoor life often endangers them, their burgeoning, bantering friendship adds depth even as the well-paced suspense builds. Well-crafted, moving and gripping. (Adventure. 10-14)
Children's Literature - Linda Sweitzer
Fourteen-year-old Victoria Secord is one of the youngest and most skilled dogsledders in Tanana Valley, Alaska. She is determined to win the upcoming White Wolf Classic race in honor of her father, who never won a race and for whose death she feels responsible. Socially withdrawn after the accident, she finds it difficult to talk to anyone except her Uncle Leonard (her dad’s twin brother) and her best friend Sarah. Victoria’s dogs are her life, and the bond she shares with them, especially her lead dog, Bean, is as natural as the Alaskan wilderness. To ensure her chances of a win, she wants a couple of the champion dogs from kindred musher Jeremy Cook, who is getting out of the sport. But Victoria’s momnot an admirer of the sportrefuses to argue again about buying any more “dogs.” Unable to afford the top-of-the-line dogs, Victoria heads out with her team to Cook’s place to discuss his price. On her way, she becomes lost when she takes an unfamiliar shortcut and stumbles upon a snow mobile without an owner. After searching for the rider, she finds an injured and unconscious boy her age covered by snow. The boy is poorly dressed for the Alaskan elements and will freeze if she does not get him back to town. Along the way, Victoria finds herself and her dogs burdened by this stranger who could endanger all their lives. Thus begins her long journey back to town, back to life. Johnson’s first-hand knowledge of dog sledding in Alaska is evident as she has the reader numb from the biting cold, aching from starvation and lack of sleep, and trembling at the possibility of perishing in the wilderness. A good read for fans of Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George or Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Reviewer: Linda Sweitzer; Ages 10 to 13.
Read an Excerpt
All eight of my dogs are stretched in front of me in pairs along the gangline. They claw the ground in frustration as the loudspeaker blares.
“Here’s team number five. Our hometown girl, fourteen-year-old Victoria Secord!”
A male voice booms out my racing stats while my lead dog, Bean, whips his crooked rat tail. He tries to lunge forward, and then catches my eye and screams with a pitch that shoots up my spinal cord and electrifies my teeth.
“Easy!” I grip the sled with shaking hands. I freaking hate starts.
With close to a hundred dogs here, the energy in the air is frantic. The bawling of the dogs in the team behind me echoes in my ears while the distinct odor of dog doo smeared under my runners assaults my nose. I try to focus on my dogs and the race chute ahead. Not the burning need to win. Not the fact that there’s no one here to cheer for me.
“We gotcha.” Two burly guys kneeling on the start line struggle to hold my bucking sled stanchions.
“Three, two, one, GO!”
We leap forward and shoot through Wicker’s parking lot.The main race sponsor insisted we start at his feed store, even though it’s three blocks away from the trailhead.They trucked in snow to get us through the streets, but as we skid through the dirty slush, I can tell this is a bad idea. Mushers need a real snow base for any kind of control.
My frozen eyelashes stick together, and I swipe at them as I peer ahead.We fly to the first corner, my heart pounding.
“Haw!” I shout.
My leaders swerve left, and the dogsled skids sideways. We’re gaining momentum. With the wind cutting into my face, it feels as if I’m being sling-shot out of a jet.
A red Chevette is the last in a line of parked vehicles along the other side of the road. I crouch lower, stick my left foot out, and dig the heel of my mukluk in to carve a tighter turn.
The sled continues skidding—closer, closer.
I jump on the brake, smashing the two metal points into the ground with every ounce of my five- foot-nothing frame. Still we skid.And then we careen into the door, my teeth rattling with the impact. A metal screech announces the collision to everyone. I hear a grinding pop.
We clear the car, and I look down to see a little extra weight in the sled bag—a side mirror. Glancing around to see if anyone noticed, I grab it and nonchalantly toss it away.The cold wind whistles through me when I grin.
I turn my attention back to my dogs. My leaders, Bean and Blue, dig for the trailhead with matching strides. Blue’s classic husky coat, with his black and white facemask, is even more striking next to Bean’s rusty-propane-tank shade of fur.
We hurtle down the middle of the street that’s been blocked off for the race. Now that they’re running, my dogs are all business, focused ahead with tight tuglines. My heart squeezes with pride. They don’t glance up as they barrel past a crouched photographer with a telephoto lens.They even ignore the smell coming from the hot dog stand next to the coffee shop.We catapult past a truck with its doors open blasting country music, past the historic log building that is the trading post with the two moose over the door. Someone had found the two sets of antlers locked together and the scene of how the animals died is forever replicated.When I was young, I could hardly stand to look at it, imagining what the moose had to endure, stuck together in battle, helpless and starving to death in the bush.
Finally we’re past Main Street, and we slip by the snow fencing that funnels us toward the trail.
I feel an instant calm.
The din of the crowd fades behind us. It’s just me and the dogs and the sunbeams breaking through the spruce branches stretching across the trail like cold fingers.The runners slice over the snow making their familiar shhhh sounds. I breathe in the tang of spruce pitch and the icy air is sharp in my throat.
But the most important thing is the dogs. It’s always about the dogs.
I watch the way Whistler paces with her lopsided gait, the way Bean flicks his ears back to check on me, and how they all run together as if listening to the same beat of a drum, like a dragon boat team paddling in sync.
Bean and I have some kind of soul connection that I can’t explain. I have a connection with all of my dogs, but Bean just gets me. I like to imagine we were friends in another life. Not that I believe in that, but there’s no other way to describe that day when he was a pup and we looked at each other. Recognition. It’s Bean who I greet first in the dog yard every morning, or when I get home from school. We have conversations. Sarah Charlie calls it crazy. She worries that I’ve changed too much since the accident.
“It’s not healthy to just want to be with your dogs,Vicky. Life is about more than racing.You need to try to get back in the game. Remember when we used to have fun?”
I shake my head and lightly touch my good luck mink. It’s a narrow pewter charm as long as my hand that’s hung around the handlebar of my dogsled since Dad gave it to me when I was nine. I’ve secretly named it Mr. Minky.
I pat the base of my nose with a shaky mitt, and call to the dogs.“Good dog, Blue, attaboy! Easy, Dorset.Who’s a good girl?”
Their ears swivel back, but they keep trotting ahead.The sled bumps and skips over dips in the hard-packed trail. I pedal my foot to help the dogs pull faster. I want to win this race for Dad. I glance at Mr. Minky, and then concentrate on the trail.
As the dogs take a corner, I lean out from the handlebar. We skid, snow spraying out from the runners. Tears squeeze out the corners of my eyes and freeze in lines across my temples. I blink rapidly to stop my eyelashes from sticking together again.
Some mushers wear ski goggles, but I don’t like how looking through goggles separates me from my environment. I like to see things clearly.
The dogs have good speed coming out of the turn. They’re really pulling, as if they know we need to win. But they should drop back to their trots—we have a long way to go yet.
“Easy. Easy, dogs.”
They run faster, smoking around a poplar stand. When we get to a straight stretch I look ahead. And then I see the wolf.