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Magic, Meteorites and Mysterious Mammoths

Illustration by William Simpson

Mike Davis has brooded over the secret sociopolitics and cultural history of Los Angeles in his essential and inescapable City of Quartz. He has meditated on the myriad ways our metropolis might meet its doom in Ecology of Fear. To imagine a young adult novel written by this often apocalyptically minded urban theorist might conjure up a postmodern Brothers Grimm tale with its characters stranded in some dystopian cityscape riven by earthquakes or assailed by other natural disasters.

In his newest book, the children’s “science adventure” Land of the Lost Mammoths, Davis turns his attentions to more remote and untrammeled terrain. The story follows four prodigious young scientists who win scholarships to study with an eccentric professor at the prestigious Arctic Natural History Institute in East Greenland. Sixteen-year-old Jack is the designer of a solar-powered, ultra-lightweight aircraft or “trike” which has won him fame in Ireland. Jack and his 13-year-old half-brother, Conor — whose knowledge of Proboscidea extends to mammoths both living and extinct — are joined by Julia, a 17-year-old American girl with interests in polar bears and languages, and a local 13-year-old arctic ecosystems whiz named Qavigarssuag (“Qav” for short). When this teenage brain trust discovers the mysterious presence of strangely well-preserved mammoth bones in Professor Dansgaard’s lab, they learn of his theory about a “refugia” where supposedly vanished mammoths still roam. Dansgaard also sets out to prove the existence of a possible settlement of lost Vikings similar to the isolated Inuit community found on Ammassalik Fjord in 1884. To verify the Viking colony’s survival, Dansgaard must travel to the Valley of the Runes on Puisortoq glacier, a place not even to be mentioned aloud, much less explored. When the expedition goes awry, Jack, Conor, Julia and Qav must put all their curiosity, ingenuity and courage to the test as they experience discoveries, separations and abductions, and struggle against the elements as well as an ancient Viking sorcerer.

The young adult novel summons the fantasies of Jules Verne and even recalls the ’70s Disney movie Island at the Top of the World. And it shares the same predilection for scrupulous research and annotation as Davis’ earlier nonfiction. It includes a page and a half of notes for “big kids and science buffs” with supplementary readings about mammoths, meteorites, Vikings and geysers, along with a Web address to learn about Greenland-style kayaking. Many Greenlandic words have been seamlessly incorporated into the dialogue. (Davis could have considered including a glossary with phonetic pronounciations for those, young or old, who wish to read the book aloud.) For all the novel’s emphasis on scientific investigation, however, Davis does allow a place in the story for magic. More than simply premonitions, dreams play a fundamental role as a means of communication between the children and the Greenlandic people. Davis also introduces several contemporary, pop-cultural references one would never find in vintage scientific adventure stories. Where once a boy genius like Tom Swift would board a Flying Lab, Jack and Conor travel from Dublin to Reykjavik in a plane chartered by “a group of fanatic Björk fans.”

Davis’ writing has always compellingly mingled history with legend, science with sorcery. His fascination with earth science and natural history in “Extreme Science,” the concluding section of his 2002 essay collection Dead Cities, resurfaces in the novel. When the secrets behind the lost Viking colony’s survival are finally revealed in Land of the Lost Mammoths, the explanation draws on Davis’ great powers of synthesis, bringing together the stories of Mutiny on the Bounty and The Island of the Color Blind by Oliver Sacks, Jack’s favorite science writer.

As one might expect from Davis, Land of the Lost Mammoths explores the nature of cultural encounters and social ecologies. Adult readers may be reminded of the author’s work as a Marxist activist and New Left Review editor when Qav describes to his new friends his family’s support of a “fully independent Greenland” and their wish for the United States to dismantle the nuclear air base in northwest Greenland’s Thule. One of the most serious issues facing the young scientists is whether or not to bring a rifle into the lost Viking settlement — how to protect themselves and, at the same time, act morally and responsibly without disrupting the Viking culture.

William Simpson’s black-and-white illustrations of characters, animals and the surrounding Arctic landscape — which are framed with animal symbols and Celtic knots — evoke drawings by N.C. Wyeth and hark back to pictures found in classic children’s books. The book is printed on thick pages with a durable blue binding that not only sits on the bookshelf like an old children’s classic, but can also withstand “outdoor adventures” with its readers.

In the prologue, Davis describes the book as a “bedtime story run amok” originally created for his then 7-year-old son, Jack, during a trip to Greenland. In a recent Believer interview, he characterized his prospective readership as “12-year-olds on up to middle-aged eccentrics.” Davis has already completed a sequel, Pirates, Bats and Dragons, which reunites the heroes on Socotra, “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.” Although Land of the Lost Mammoths lacks the breadth of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, Davis’ story does share the same devotion to the intelligence and independence of its young heroes. Land of the Lost Mammoths is a playful and thoughtful tale, enveloped in more than enough scientific and historical material to beguile young readers and to bedevil their teachers of geography, biology and history.

LAND OF THE LOST MAMMOTHS | By MIKE DAVIS | Perceval Press | 177 pages | $16, hardcover

Mike Davis will read from Land of the Lost Mammoths on Saturday, March 27, 2 p.m., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110; and on Sunday, March 28, 2 p.m., at Midnight Special, 1450 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 393-2923.


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