Kelly Tries Very Hard to Not Talk About Gender in YA as She Reviews “Peak” by Roland Smith

Peak by Roland Smith
Genre: Adventure, young adult fiction
Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Summary: Peak Marcello is in a mountain of trouble. Except this time, he wasn’t climbing an actual mountain. It was a NYC skyscraper. That happened to hold the mayor, who happened to think Peak was a terrorist. The cops are called in, and Peak is caught. He’s facing detainment until he reaches 18, a veritable hell for a 14 year old kid who wants to climb. Just in time, Peak’s biological father steps in with a plan. He will take Peak out of the country to stop the media circus. What he doesn’t reveal is that he wants to put Peak at the top of Mount Everest – making Peak the youngest person to do so. It should be the greatest adventure of Peak’s young life, but (as he soon finds out) life tends to be more complicated than what we plan.

There’s a show on Animal Planet called I Shouldn’t Be Alive. It’s no existential crisis on the merits of life (which is more my speed). It’s an adventure show – people do stupid things in the wild and then are surprised when they almost die. “Should I go hiking by myself in the Grand Canyon, or perhaps try to find El Dorado even though I’ve never before been in a jungle?” The answer is always a resounding “YES!” Followed by disastrous results. Perhaps it’s a bit of schadenfreude, or living vicariously through others, but I freaking love that show.

So I was enthusing about it at work, and the next day a co-worker brings me the book Peak. She said her 12 year old son really enjoyed it, and seeing as I like the adventure show, I may too. I was intrigued by the adventure aspect (though I don’t think I’ll seek out other books like it. I prefer my adventuring in easily digested one hour segments). But I was more intrigued by the elusive YA for boys, a beast rarely seen around these parts.

It seems to be a hot topic right now, or at least generating interest from people outside the YA world. However, this is not a post about gender in YA, or why boys don’t like to read girl narrated books. My position is easily defined – females are constantly given male narratives to read and watch. It dominates in most adult literature and cinema that isn’t romance or “fluff.” Maybe because we are used to it, but women generally don’t have a problem reading from either gender. So neither should males. It boils down to this: the merit of a story is not derived from the gender of the narrator. But having varied voices, whether it’s gender, race, class, etc., allows us to experience and empathize with others. Which is why we tell stories in the first place. And reading a female perspective does not cause spontaneous vagina growth. *Gets off soap box* Now, onto the review!

To completely contradict what I just wrote – I can see how this book appeals to ‘tween and teen boys (and was written for this audience, as I’m guessing it was). Peak gets in trouble for doing something dumb; his dad swoops in and takes him to the most exciting place on earth for a climber: Mount Everest. There is no romance, no pretty prose. Which are tropes and techniques that we expect to see with “girl YA,” and that is problematic in and of itself. (But I swore this was not going to be a gender-discussing post). It’s a very engaging story, especially as complications arise in the plan to get Peak to the top. As someone who is constantly asked to make recommendations for reluctant boy readers, I will freely give out this title to exasperated parents.

As a 23 year old female reader, I can honestly say I enjoyed reading this book. Perhaps not as much as the 12 year old son of my co-worker, but I appreciated the way Smith wrote the story. I thought it was going to be a straight-up adventure, with people getting stuck on the mountain and, you know, lot’s of climbing. And whatever else those people do when they willingly choose to place their lives in danger for no discernable reason. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found more layers to this story. The most complex element of the narrative is the relationship between the characters, and the motives behind their actions.

Josh is Peak’s biological father, and he is a giant jerk. He rarely remembers that he has a child, as he is too busy being a famous climber and trying to build his brand even further. Peak soon discovers Josh has other reasons for the climb, and this creates new problems in their already tenuous relationship. Then there is Zopa, a retired Sherpa (that’s a native Tibetan who is hired to assist climbers reach the summit). He is now a monk, and has undisclosed motives for almost everything he does. Sun-jo is another 14 year old boy on the mountain, and Peak has conflicting feelings towards him.  Peak’s family is back in NYC, and they are the real emotional anchor in the story.

The most interesting part of the novel is the political aspect. It never occurred to me how politicized climbing Everest is, as one way to the summit is in Tibet. Smith introduces the situation between China and Tibet in very simplistic terms, but it’s clear the way the Chinese government treats Tibetans is wrong. Seeing this first hand has a very strong impact on Peak’s understanding of the world. It also plays a big part in the outcome of the novel. Peak learns that are things bigger than ourselves and our own desires. This lesson is delivered with a dose of action and life-threatening situations. It’s rather devious, and I approve.

Now to contradict myself again – while I approve that there is a deeper meaning to be found in the novel, I think it needs to be fleshed out more. It all seems to be thrown in at the end, as Peak gets closer to the summit. If the ideas had been written into the first part of the novel, I think they would’ve had more of an impact during the second part. There are great beginnings of really important things here – what it means to have trusting and meaningful relationships, how bowing out can be the hardest and the bravest thing one can do, and recognizing privilege in a world where many people can’t get clean water. Though, I know it’s easier said than done. Finding the right balance between plot and theme is really difficult; I just think this book was  too late in bringing in the “big ideas,” if you will.

THE GOOD:
– Engrossing story
– Unexpected ideas about politics and relationships
– Peak grows as a character during the story
– What an ending!

THE BAD:
– Needed a stronger basis for the “big ideas” at the end

There! I resisted talking about gender for almost a full four paragraphs. Overall, an interesting adventure book with some neat subplots thrown in to make it more complex than I expected. Which has to do with my own preconceptions about YA adventure novels geared towards boys. But that’s for another post.

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One thought on “Kelly Tries Very Hard to Not Talk About Gender in YA as She Reviews “Peak” by Roland Smith

  1. Peak? Did his parents let him name himself? Also, he should have gotten stuck headfirst inside a hippo with James Franco. That would be the best book/episode of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” ever.

    Obviously if a boy were to read girl narrated fiction they would instantly start getting a period. Because that’s how it works. That being said, I definitely connect less with most male narrators, but that doesn’t mean I don’t/can’t read them. It just takes me some getting used to.

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