Book Review: On Thin Ice by Jamie Bastedo

It’s always a treat to find a good new book! This one is doubly notable because it is excellent, and it takes place in Canada’s arctic region, showcasing life in a part of the country that few Canadians have visited. However there’s always the Cold Winter Weather to link many of us together!

‘On Thin Ice’ follows a year in the life of teenage Ashley, who lives in a small town in Nunavut. She enjoys drawing and spending time with her extended family and her good friend Rosie, as well as making the most of the landscapes and places around her home. Despite the fairly bleak description on the book cover, the overall story is uplifting. There are elements that touch on the types of tragedy that occur up north – bear attacks, issues of alcohol abuse, and the challenges of being far away from much of the world’s ‘civilisation’, as well as the concrete effects of changing temperatures that the northern people have been coping with for years – but the story is generally cheerful, with humour, mouth-watering descriptions of her mom’s baking, hilarious jokes about her brother Gabe’s quirks, and moving and introspective sequences about her relationship to bears in dreams and in a more spiritual sense as part of her ancestral traditions.

The story has no preoccupation with the ‘should I lie or not?’ type of drama that is typical of many young women’s titles right now, and it has a really good main character, a girl who is neither catty nor jealous, is free from much of the silliness of pop culture, and is doing her darned best to find her roots and cope with real-life events. She is someone whom the reader can ‘befriend’ – and we feel equally attached to her dependable, kind-hearted family.

I particularly liked the book for a homeschool teen audience for several reasons:

  • Ashley’s life and lifestyle are centred on her family and home. There are only passing references to school, and the real ‘life’ of the book is within her family relationships: her mother’s preoccupation with New Age explanations for arctic melting; her father’s attempts to get the small community connected through a local radio station; her brother’s cheerful and unique point of view as a blind and developmentally-challenged fiddle-playing teen; her distant and somewhat mysterious Uncle Jonah with his knowledge of local legends and medicine traditions; her aunt and younger brother who are always there in the background. Ashley is isolated, in one way, and in another way, is never alone. This could ring true for many homeschoolers.
  • Ashley’s inner world is important. Her vivid dreams, her strong attraction to the traditional drumming of the Inuit people, her time alone in her room drawing, her introspective walks outdoors and special links with local places are all introverted character ‘themes’. This makes a nice change from the supposed extroverted interests of girls common in many currently trendy books – ‘guys’, the occult, vampires, winning something, being the best at something, competing with other girls, hating boys, hating themselves, and so on. There’s none of that in this book, which is, frankly, a relief!
  • Ashley’s interest in drawing inspires her to take a long distance course – an approach that might be familiar to some homeschoolers.
  • Ashley’s home and surrounding natural landscape are a memorable setting for the story. Little things – a pleasant trail, a weird building, a local power outage, and encounters with wildlife – are as important in this story as they are in real life. No need to fly halfway across the world to find something interesting – or to buy something, go on TV, win a prize, travel through time, meet someone famous, etc. ‘Just be where you are and live the experience’ seems to be the message of the book, whether that experience is getting on your nerves or inspiring you or just plain old boring at times. Homeschool students who are sensitive to their immediate surroundings may enjoy the place and pace of this story.

‘On Thin Ice’ by Jamie Bastedo is available here. We borrowed our copy from the library – published by Red Deer Press – and it includes a handy glossary of Inuktitut words which helps the reader to understand a few terms introduced in the text. For example, Qaujimajatuqangit signifies ‘traditional Inuit knowledge’ – which, as it sounds, is quite complex . . . ! A companion Teacher’s Guide is also available, if you want to use the book for a ‘novel-study’ type middle/high school assignment.


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