cover image The Great Death

The Great Death

John Smelcer. Henry Holt, $15.99 (176p) ISBN 978-0-8050-8100-8

As the author notes in his introduction, in the Alaskan winter of 1917, a pandemic spread from white traders to native villagers, killing two thirds of the population. Smelcer (The Trap) offers the fictionalized account of two sisters%E2%80%9413-year-old Millie and 10-year old-Maura%E2%80%94the sole survivors from their village ("The village that was all the girls knew of life and place and home had transformed into a smoky shadow of death"). A multitude of experiences challenge the strength and dedication of the girls, as they make their way downriver in an attempt to locate civilization. With two dogs as their only companions and an armful of supplies, they navigate rough weather, wolf attacks, and visits from ghosts. In graceful, detail-rich language, Smelcer renders poetic even the darkest moments of this fast-paced adventure ("Outside, stars clustered like mosquitoes and the moonless night dwindled into nothingness%E2%80%94and within the nothingness rising to the stars, were a multitude of spirits of the dead") without mitigating the intensity of the horrors the girls face. The sisters' hardships and triumphs should stay close to readers' hearts. Ages 10%E2%80%94up. (Oct.)