Barry Wolverton's charming debut novel for children echoes with elements drawn from the Norse saga tradition. There are rocky thingvellir, pagan creation myths, bloody acts of vengeance, and even a catabatic quest to an exiled goddess. But instead of viking raiders, the inhabitants of this mythic Arctic archipelago are talking guillemots and murres, conspiring owls and toadying moles; house sparrows play the role of churls, and the brutish berserker is a martial eagle flown in from Africa. This isn't exactly Snorri's Edda.
Neversink's hero is a puffin paterfamilias named Lockley, who, with his sidekicks Egbert (a scholarly walrus in exile) and Ruby (a vagrant hummingbird), confronts the ruthless Rozbell, a pygmy owl with a Napoleon complex who has staged a coup and crowned himself king of the owls. Rozbell, in his immoderate desire for Lockley's wife's fish snacks, imposes a new tax on the island of Neversink, and eventually sends a troop of burrowing owls to occupy the island. Only Lockley can persuade the goddess Sedna to help; his adventures on the way to her undersea dwelling include captivity, betrayal, and more than one brush with a bloody death. In the end, though, he is able to expose Rozbell, and Lockley becomes the successor to the aged law-giver, Great Auk, just as he and his wife hatch their first "piffling."
This may be a bit much for some of the young readers for whom the novel is intended. Not unlike many of its Old Norse antecedents, Neversink is complex and rather loosely plotted. Even so, the characters are often charming and invariably funny–even the "bad guys"–and the narrator's occasional wry interventions will make even older readers smile (Rozbell's autobiographical epic is described, for example, as the "most deplorable [thing] in publishing [before] the dawn of celebrity children's books"). Wolverton sneaks in just enough seabird biology to keep things realistic (!), and there is a conservation message in the sudden dearth of fish that results from Rozbell's gluttony.
Sam Nielson's beautiful illustrations make Neversink even more appealing. Share this book with a young reader, and see what she–and you–think.