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Breaking Trail

Reviewed: August 29, 2005
By: Joanne Bell
Publisher: Groundwood Books
135 pages, $9.95

Becky is a youngster with problems. First and foremost is the fact that her family seems to be breaking up. It used to be that she and her parents and little sister, Rachel, lived what she recalls as an idyllic life in the Yukon bush. Dad was a trapper and loved the life. But when the bottom fell out of the fur market, it seemed like it also fell out of his soul.

Becky's mom says he's brain-sick, and the whole family hopes that a late winter trip back to the cabin will help the medication do its work.

Becky has another problem, though. She's taken on the challenge of raising and training a dog team, starting with a clutch of reject puppies that the owner of a local kennel didn't think worth the effort.

Becky had always dreamed of doing this, of having her dad coach her through it and teach her the fine points. Now she's having to do it all herself, trying to beat the thaw on a trip to the wilderness and also trying to hide the fact that Ginger, her choice for a lead dog, is pregnant.

About the only thing helping her with that last chore is the fact that her parents are so wrapped up in their strained marriage that they are making most of the journey on automatic pilot and really don't notice much about the girls.

We jump right into the middle of this young adult novel, with the background given to us through italicized flashbacks; Becky's memories of better times and lessons learned being triggered by events in the present.

While the story contains all the personal conflict and action needed to make a good read, it is particularly good at simply celebrating the everyday realities of life in the bush: making camp, rising early, mushing, breaking trail, making tea. The book is full of evocative descriptions of outdoor life, written by someone who has loved it and knows it.

This is not one of those stories that ties all the plot threads up neatly for you at the end, but neither is it one that will leave you unsettled. Though it is not without its share of tragedy and disappointment, it closes with a bit of promise on several fronts.

Breaking Trail is a first novel by Joanne Bell, who might be better known to other Yukoners as Joanne Bell-Fraughton. Joanne has been writing, teaching,k and encouraging young people to love books and writing in Dawson for a number of years, and her short stories have won her a few prizes. She has completed the MFA program at the University of British Columbia.

This novel for teens is something she had tucked away out of sight until her parents and her daughter, Elizabeth, to whom it is dedicated, persuaded her to send it out to some publishers and see what happened.

Readers will agree that it's a good thing they nagged her into it. I read this while mechanics were fussing over the engine of a grounded Air North flight at the airport in Calgary, and it kept my mind off the situation for the entire time.

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