Ben Mikaelsen fans will likely appreciate his newest book, Jungle Bones, which is about a young boy who is angry and fighting to survive. As I read, many times I was reminded of scenes from Touching Spirit Bear.
Dylan Barstow is defiant, disrespectful, and determined to do whatever annoys adults the most. The only sane part of his life is a black lab named Zipper. Not quite an eighth grader, this king of contempt has a “file as thick as a phone book” (10) and a chip on his shoulder “as big as a log” (29). Resentful that his mother treats him like a screw-up, he decides to deliver, committing a crime of opportunity. After all, the car was unlocked with its keys dangling from the ignition when he stole it and took it for a joy ride, spinning cookies in a farmer’s field.
Much of Dylan’s attitude stems from his father’s death, which leaves him numb, empty, depressed, and angry. His father sacrificed his own needs for the needs of another, fighting the genocide in Darfur with a camera and his pen, but the sacrifice is misunderstood by Dylan, who thinks his father favored others over his own family. When his father died, Dylan lost the only person who understood him, the one person “who had like his music, his skateboarding, and the writing that he never showed to anybody else, because they might laugh” (16), the only person who—like Zipper—always listened and never criticized.
At the end of her rope but not ready to give up on Dylan—despite his having already given up on himself—Dylan’s mom decides to turn Dylan over to his proto-military Uncle Todd, the “human bulldog” who puts Dylan under a microscope and makes him run. In Dylan’s view, life with Uncle Todd is more miserable than it already was. Plus, he plans to take Dylan to Papua New Guinea (PNG), which “has some of the most forgiving real estate on the planet” (25). In the PNG, the team will search for the remains of the Second Ace, a WWII bomber that went down; its only survivor was Dylan’s grandfather.
Deep in the jungle where he learns about initiation ceremonies for young men in the PNG, Dylan continues to make bad choices, and he ends up separated from the team. Half dead hallucinations teach Dylan about war, sacrifice, true suffering, and respect. Alone and focusing solely on survival, Dylan finally comes to understand why his father could not let attempted genocide go ignored. He realizes that real is what we believe, that being angry is easier than looking in the mirror and taking responsibility, that terms like backward and uncivilized are ignorant stereotypes, and that giving up attitude means giving up control and surrendering to the risk of being hurt.
Readers will have to read Mikaelson’s book to discover whether the trip screws Dylan’s head on straight or whether he survives to process the valuable lessons, not the least of which is freedom is never free. Or, perhaps the entire episode is maswa, a dream, an illusion.
- Posted by Donna