This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.1.
In the vein of Monique Polak’s excellent Middle of Everywhere (2009), Sigmund Brouwer’s Devil’s Pass takes a young urban Torontonian on an adventure of a lifetime in Canada’s wild north. Both novels are poignant investigations into how culture shock and isolation can be powerful motivators in identity formation, but where Polak’s protagonist learns a lot about himself and his place in the world, about cultural values and what really matters, there is a sense of security in his life that is noticeably absent from 17-year-old Webb’s experiences in Devil’s Pass.
Webb is a street kid—by choice. He has run away from an abusive step-father and a mother he loves but who remains in ignorance of Webb’s reality, an ignorance Webb painfully perpetuates to protect her from her borderline psychotic husband. Upon the death of his beloved grandfather, Webb is thrust into an adventure—orchestrated by his grandfather as part of his legacy—that takes him to the Canol Heritage Trail in the Northwest Territories in search of answers to a mystery from his grandfather’s youth. The quest itself is interesting enough to engage the reader immediately and consistently: Brouwer feeds us clues little by little, artfully reeling us in to the tension that Webb feels both within himself and in the world around him. Webb’s street-smarts come into play when he runs foul of a local troublemaker in Norman Wells, where the hiking portion of his quest begins. The combination of the social problems Webb must deal with (poverty, homelessness, abuse, police harassment), the grief he struggles with at the loss of both his mother and his grandfather, and his need to complete the task his grandfather has set for him, drive Webb forward with a determination that readers will not only admire, but understand. Webb is not a strong, self-assured hero; rather, he is a troubled, angry young man, sometimes scared, and certainly seeking for a home and security in an unfriendly world. In the end, we are not know certain he will manage the road he has chosen, but we applaud the choices that he ultimately makes.
Devil’s Pass is one of seven novels written by seven separate authors, about the seven grandsons of David McLean, each of whom is sent on a quest as part of his inheritance: Webb’s journey will certainly inspire readers to seek out the other novels in the series, in the hope that they are as satisfying in term of both intrigue and emotional veracity.