For decades Boys Fiction consisted primarily of adventure stories and sports novels, with Gary Paulsen the go-to writer for adolescent males.
Then JK Rowling blew the doors off publishing and adventure stories and sports books took a dive. Fantasy novels, vampire romance, dystopian trilogies and illustrated comedies took center stage.
Flash forward twenty years or so. Here we find Joseph Monninger, a writer better known for adult novels (The Major’s Daughter, The Map That Leads to You) and nonfiction (Two Ton: One Night, One Fight -Tony Galento v. Joe Louis), reviving the dusty old Boys Adventure genre with the series Stay Alive.
Stay Alive currently consists of four books: Crash, Cave-In, Breakdown and Flood. The titles speak for themselves. Each novel places a group of young teenagers in a horrific situation where the stakes are high and the odds are long.
Let’s zoom in on one book and let it stand for the whole.
In Cave-In a group of kids travel to the deserted Hog Island for a field trip over the Thanksgiving holiday. They intend to stay the long weekend with their teacher, Mr. O’Connell, and his student teacher, Ms. Carpenter. They will clean trash off the island, allowing the nesting bird population a better chance at survival. And there are a lot of birds on Hog Island.
Well, okay, maybe not millions of birds, but certainly thousands. Mostly gulls. They glided back and forth above them, banking on the wind, calling, shouting, making all sorts of weird, haunted noises that sounded, in certain registers, like babies crying. It gave the whole scene a strange, haunted feeling.
To ensure focus, cell phones were banned from the trip, a decision that will come back to haunt Mr. O’Connell.
Once on the island, the troop sets up their tents, lays down their packs, and begins to explore the abandoned Fort Gorges, which was built during the Civil War. Along with the fort is a separate building for storing explosives called a powder magazine.
It was a long stone building, built into the earth. You could not see it from above. The roof had grown over with weedy grass a long time ago, and unless you looked for it you would have missed it altogether. Someone had said when they first stepped inside that it looked like a baseball dugout, the major-league type, and that was probably as good a description as any. Except that it was constructed with stone.
The entire group is inside the powder magazine when the earthquake hits.
The quake collapses the walls of the magazine, killing one student and trapping the troop inside. One boy is badly wounded. While openings in the magazine allow airflow, the exits are buried. The troop’s food and water are back with their packs and tents. There’s no way to call for help, and no one is coming for them for at least three days.
They are in serious trouble.
Monninger excels at describing the disorientation and fuzziness of sudden trauma. The group is dazed and afraid. Tension escalates quickly. Some kids cling to hope of an easy rescue. Others do the math and realize that without water they’re all going to die.
Monninger also shines in sketching realistic characters. Take Sandy Bellow, a self-centered drama queen who initially refuses to attempt to squeeze through the tiny opening the troop unearths in the rubble. She offers one excuse after another, more absorbed by her petulance than her fear of a slow, dehydrating death.
When she does eventually try, she makes it out and thinks:
Maybe she would be a hero, she thought. Maybe when it was all said and done, everyone would have to admit that Sandy Bellow was their savior. Maybe Sandy Bellow – she liked thinking this way, she realized – would come out on top, be the one who saved the day. Bob Worm would have to admit it, and that would grind his guts. Everyone would have to admit that a girl, one Ms. Sandy Bellow, had outdone them. She couldn’t wait for that.
People are petty. You know it. I know it. Monninger knows it. Lesser writers shield young readers from such truths or try to balance the scale by making those characters pay for their wicked ways. But you and I and Monninger also know the world rarely works that way. There is no comeuppance for Sandy Bellow.
(Ironically, it is this lack of comeuppance that most disturbs the reviewer from Kirkus Reviews, who takes a swipe at Monninger’s book for not giving Sandy what she deserves and claiming she’s “hard to care about”. Which is…duh…the point.).
Later in the book, she doubles-down on her pettiness, refusing to help gather wood and supplies once the troop escapes the magazine. Mr. O’Connell attempts to reason with her, but she resoundingly blames him for their situation, telling him her parents will sue him and the school district for what happened on Hog Island.
Which is the least of Mr. O’Connell’s worries.
Because even after the troop does escape the magazine, they discover their tents crushed under a collapsed for wall. No food. No water.
But they do come across a crumbling old row boat. They haul it down to the shore and set it on the water. Nothing about the boat seems evenly remotely stable, but it does hold water. Barely. Mr. O’Connell and Ms. Carpenter debate who should make an attempt for shore. Mr. O’Connell insists it is his responsibility. Ms. Carpenter insists she is younger, stronger and the more experienced rower.
Eventually Ms. Carpenter steals away with the boat in the early morning hours, a horrible mistake. She is indeed young and strong and experienced, but none of that matters to the ocean current which sweeps her out to sea. As the boat is pulled inexorably along, it begins to wrench apart, and the water pours in.
From Hog Island, the kids and Mr. O’Connell watch as Ms. Carpenter drowns far from shore.
Monninger is a writer who pulls no punches. The Stay Alive series are tales of survival. And not everyone survives.
Like the best middle grade writers, he doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Not about the difficult and deadly situations his characters find themselves in or his characters themselves, who are not always likable or redeemed.
Instead, Monninger offers a stark but honest view of the world. Bad things happen. The good guys don’t always make it.
The most apt description of his series comes by way of the character Sam Harding, who likes to imagine himself inside movie scenes.
…he considered that this was a situational movie, not a character movie. A situational movie was the type where the situation was the most important element. Like Gravity, maybe, or like Jurassic Park. You put characters in a difficult environment, applied pressure, and voila. You had a movie.
Sounds easy enough. But while situational stories appear straightforward from the outside, crafting them well takes tremendous skill.
Will Stay Alive revive a mostly forgotten genre? Probably not. But it should. Cave-In and its brothers are worthy of space alongside Paulsen’s Hatchet, George’s My Side of the Mountain, and Sperry’s Call It Courage.
Although the Stay Alive novels are distinct from those classics in a crucial way. Where most tales in this genre are about lone individuals finding inner strength and overcoming adversity, the Stay Alive series features ensemble casts. There is less soul-searching but more about group dynamics.
Which is important. Because in a very real sense, life on Earth is a survival story. And we’re all in it together.