I've never been much for climbing mountains. Don't get me wrong. I love the great outdoors. I love hiking. I just went about learning to climb mountains all wrong.
I was an undergrad doing an exchange year in Innsbruck, Austria. They warned us to bring hiking boots, but I was a poor undergrad. I couldn't afford hiking boots. Besides, I thought, why would I need them? They have regular roads in Austria, don't they?
Halfway up the Untersberg - huge, dangerous mountain - in Salzburg, Austria, in my deck shoes, when we started passing the lonely crosses hanging along the sheer granite wall just above the steps hewn into the rock that were slippery with rain and dropped off 1,000 meters to one side, I began to see the error in my ways. I lived to tell about my follies, but that climb put the very real fear of dying on teh side of a mountain into me.
Peak, by Roland Smith, takes that fear factor to new, uncharted heights, Everest heights. I really enjoyed this book. It's a great, action-packed, well-written read. The basic story line centers around Peak Marcello, a rock climbing fanatic who's caught scaling the Woolworth building in New York City. He is charged with a whole host of crimes from trespassing to reckless endangerment. Juvenile Hall seems imminent.
Enter, super dad: Peak’s almost never present, world famous mountain climbing father, Joshua Wood, arrives unexpectedly and offers to take Peak back with him to his home in Nepal, where he has already enrolled his son in school. Problem seemingly solved.
Not quite. Peak never makes it to Nepal. What's more, he learns it was never his father’s intention to take him there. Josh is headed to the slopes of Everest, where he is leading an expedition. He offers Peak the chance of a lifetime, to come along.
What appears to be much-delayed but deeply craved fatherly concern and attention soon reveals itself as self-motivation. Josh’s business - leading expeditions up Everest - is in danger. He needs something spectacular to make his company stand out, like - say - the youngest climber to summit Everest. The record stands at fifteen. Peak is only fourteen. His initial excitement about climbing the mountain plummets when he realizes his father’s motive is not parental concern but self-gain.
What’s more, Peak has competition: another fourteen year-old boy, Sun-jo, is also trying to summit the mountain with Josh Woods’ expedition. However Sun-jo’s motivation is far more gravitating that either Josh’s or Peak’s. Sun-jo's father, a Sherpa, died saving Josh. Since then, the family has fallen on hard times. If Sun-jo summits Everest, the resulting fame will earn him enough money to bring prosperity back to his family.
The plot takes on a whole new level tension as it splits in two. It's no longer just about Peak’s struggle to achieve individual gain (summiting the mountain). The story turns into a struggle about personal growth (letting the other guy win).
For as much as this book had me hanging on the edge of my seat, I take one issue with it, namely, the age issue. Peak does not seem like a 14 year old. Granted, it's got to take some real maturity to scale a mountain such as Everest. To acknowledge this, Smith makes Peak a 14 year old graduating senior from a elite, private, alternative school in NYC. It helps, but if I had had to guess Peak's age, I'd have gone with 18 at least. Even the life lesson learned at the end of the book seems far beyond the grasp of a 14 year old (many 40s year olds for that matter): "The only thing you'll find at the summit of Mount Everst is a divine view. The things that really matter lie far below."
I wish, in many ways, Smith had put told Peak's story in retrospective, giving his character the wisdom of age in reflecting on his climb, much like Spinelli did with his main character in Star Girl. Still, I don't think the age issue is one that would phase a 14 year old reading the book in the least. At 14, one dreams of doing things like this, and Smith's story makes the impossible probable. I took the leap of faith, albeit reluctantly, but I doubt my reasons are ones that would hold back a young adult reader. What's more, my criticism wouldn't stop me from buying the book or recommending it. It passes the thrill test with flying colors. I didn't want to put the book down. I had to find out what happened. The story definitely kept me on the edge of my seat...and a lot safer than in deck shoes scaling the side of a slippery mountain.
For more awesome reviews, check out The Book Review Club's main guru, Barrie Summy. There are some really neat ones this month.