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Item - The Polar Bear Express

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Series: Choose Your Own Adventure for Younger Readers — no. 23
Translated Into: Aventures dans le Grand Nord (French)
L'exprés de l'ós polar (Catalan)
El expreso del oso polar (Spanish)
Author: Packard, Edward
Illustrator: Granger, Paul (pseudonym used by Hedin, Don)
Date: December, 1984
ISBN: 0553152998 / 9780553152999
Length: 53 pages
Number of Endings: 10
User Summary: Minotuk, an Inuit friend of yours, invites you to visit him in the far north.
Demian's Thoughts:

Although this book is short and nearly plotless, it's a bit more interesting than usual for the series thanks to its frequent references to Inuit culture and the unusual characteristics of life in the Arctic. As with most of this series, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone far beyond the target age group, but it's not bad for what it is.

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KenJenningsJeopardy74's Thoughts:

As the Choose Your Own Adventure franchise evolved, more cultural elements were introduced. Stories about particular ethnic groups were emphasized, and that seems to be Edward Packard’s aim in The Polar Bear Express. A visit by Eskimos to your family is the catalyst for you to go an extended trip alone with your young Inuit friend Minotuk to Seal Bay, the village where he lives in remote northern Canada. Since it’s summer you can stay with Minotuk and his parents, Mark and Tooma, without missing school. Days of travel by train are required before you reach the far north town of Churchill, and the rest of your journey to Seal Bay may be more arduous. Would you rather go by airplane, or take longer to get there via traditional Eskimo ways?

An airplane gets you to Seal Bay in a jiffy, a village of only a few basic houses and small businesses. Now that you’re here, you could go on a fishing trip with Minotuk in the chilly waters. Or maybe you’d rather cruise with him on his snowmobile; you’ll spot great herds of caribou, and even some polar bears, too close to your vehicle for comfort. Should you flee, or remain still and hope they don’t notice you? This is the most consequential decision of the book, one that could cost your life. If you don’t feel joined at the hip to Minotuk you could stay home with his aunt Rena and learn to carve animals out of stone. It’s an acquired skill, but you enjoy the challenge and have some aptitude for it. There are community Eskimo games you could partake in with Minotuk, earning your stripes as an honorary Inuit, or you could go meet the village shaman, one of a dying breed who understand Eskimo culture and can bestow unique spiritual blessings. Will you feel like a real Eskimo by the time you say goodbye to Minotuk’s family? That depends how deeply you immerse yourself in the Seal Bay lifestyle.

Heading to the village using traditional Eskimo transport instead of airplane leaves you an option: do you go by umiak—a small boat—or dog sled? Boat travel in this Arctic environment is beautiful yet hazardous; you marvel as a beluga whale breaches the water, yet also run into an ice floe that blocks your route. You’ll have to camp outdoors until the floe breaks away, but what manner of creature might be following you in the wilderness? To save time you can take a walking shortcut across the floe, but if it breaks off you’ll be stranded on the water. If you successfully make camp for the night, Mark tells you one of two Inuit tales as you drift to sleep. Both are infused with warm, subtle wisdom, worth mulling as you continue into the main part of your Seal Bay vacation. Selecting a dog sled as your transport rather than a boat has its own dangers; when the weather worsens, will you plow ahead through the driving snow, or retreat to Churchill? Either way, you’re guaranteed a surprise slice of Eskimo life. After exploring old Canada, how could your life ever be quite the same?

The Polar Bear Express is too short for more than a superficial look at Eskimo culture. The descriptions are dry, so you don’t feel the experiences as though you were there. Some endings come before any satisfying narrative can build at all. Yet the book is a decent bit of fun for a young literary tourist, and I especially appreciate the two stories Mark tells: the tale of the orphan and the man in the moon emphasizes that becoming strong and potentially dangerous may be the best way to deal with widespread rejection, and the one about the woman and her bear cub “son” shows that constructive social pressure can guide us to do the right thing when our desires tell us otherwise. I can imagine kids having a good time with The Polar Bear Express.

More reviews by KenJenningsJeopardy74

Special Thanks:Thanks to Ken G. for the red cover scans.
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