In North (2004), author Donna Jo Napoli, best known for modernizing legends and fairy tales, remains true to form by telling a contemporary adventure story.
A sixth-grader named Alvin (or “Dwarf” to his classmates) is suffering under the pressures of his overprotective mother. At one point, he is approached by a drug dealer who asks Alvin to be a runner. Alvin walks away, but his mother blames him for speaking with the drug dealer in any event. Alvin’s mother also forbids Alvin from visiting any white neighborhood without her.
Alvin’s teacher gives him an assignment to select a famous African American. He chooses Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer and the son of freeborn sharecroppers in Maryland. Henson traveled with Robert Peary in the 1890s to the North Pole, until they reached their goal in 1909. His story is the blueprint for Alvin’s adventure.
Alvin decides to break away from his mother by embarking on an adventure and he runs away to the North Pole in January. By gathering his money from savings for a bicycle, Alvin purchases a train ticket from his home in Washington, D.C. The trip takes him to New York, then to Toronto, and then on to Winnipeg, Canada. Through this journey, Alvin is assisted by adults and has much good fortune along the way.
In Winnipeg, he connects with the Inuit people. As it turns out, Alvin is the first African American that this group of Inuit have ever seen. The Inuit help Alvin reach Bylot Island near the Arctic Circle. Alvin spends a season with a trapper and endures the sunless days eating stews made from walrus meat and lemmings. Alvin gains great confidence in his accomplishments.
His adventure is not without challenges and great drama. At one point he is rescued by an Intuit man and narrowly escapes death. His relationship with an Intuit man named Idlouk Tana (the same man who saved him) is heart-warming. Alvin learns how to live in the Arctic.
At the end of the story, Alvin is arriving home in June. Upon his return, he brings a broad view of the world and a greater appreciation for his family.
Critics have praised Napoli’s North as an unlikely but fascinating journey. Her attention to detail brings the wide variety of characters into view for readers.