How hot is it down here in the city? Hot enough that reading a book about slowly freezing to death in northern New York State sounds positively refreshing.
Background: The novel opens with an ominous epigraph from the fall 1970 issue of NAHO, an academic journal published by the New York State Museum and Science Service:
“Without a doubt the most forbidding and unknown physiographic region in New York State is the great windswept plateau called Tug Hill. On a road map it is that strange blank area of roughly two hundred thousand acres approximately twenty miles southeast of Watertown and thirty miles northwest of Utica. An effort to locate a hamlet or even a dirt road in this enigmatic area can only be rewarded with frustration…”
The Plot: Fifteen year old Tony Laporte has a lot of room for personal growth as the novel opens. Tony’s parents are both machinists at local factories in the unnamed northern New York town, although his father’s position as a union steward has meant that they are the first family on the wrong side of the tracks with a color TV set. Handsome, spoiled, arrogant and generally discontented, Tony’s at odds with his parents and three sisters, especially when they object to him adopting a stray dog that has followed him home during a warm midwinter spell. He attempts to hide the dog in the basement when it starts to blizzard, but when it awakens the Laportes’ upstairs landlords in the middle of the night, his father drives the dog off the property.
Tony ditches school the next day and unsuccessfully goes searching for the dog. When he sees his mother’s car (a ’51 Plymouth) parked at the local garage awaiting to be picked up, he convinces the mechanic to let him sit in it to warm up for a few minutes. Instead, Tony drives the car off the lot, determined to head for his Uncle Leonard in Watertown. He’ll understand how much his family sucks!
Meanwhile, teenaged Cindy Reichert has concluded an unsatisfying visit with her grandmother, and is dismayed to learn that the weather has delayed her bus home. Morbidly introverted, Cindy is creeped out by the Parker Stevenson lookalike giving her the eye in the bus station, so she heads out to the highway to thumb a ride back to her hometown of Malone.
Tony of course picks her up and they don’t get along from the get-go, since Cindy is kind of snooty and pretentious and uses what Tony refers to as “five-dollar words”.
When they get stuck behind a snowplow on the interstate, Tony turns off onto a dirt road to make a shortcut- when they lose sight of the road in the snow, they end up wrecked and in the middle of nowhere.
The bulk of the novel deals with (in often excruciating detail) how Tony and Cindy have to pool their limited skills and resources in order to survive, first in the battered car and then (when they realize that “help” is not coming) in the woods as they search for civilization in that “enigmatic area” of the Tug Hill Plateau.
And survival is frequently a one step forward, two steps back proposition: for every happy coincidence (Cindy’s Grandmother sent along four dozen cookies!) there is a major screw-up (on day two Cindy panics and runs into the woods, soaking her socks and boots, rendering her feet frostbitten for the rest of the book).
After three days in the car, Tony decides to set out for help, leaving Cindy alone in the wrecked car. Although she succeeds in building a fire in a tin can and lighting it with the car’s cigarette lighter, and melts snow in the dashboard ashtray to have warm water to drink, days pass with no sign of either Tony or a rescue party. She begins keeping a journal in a pocket notebook that she decides is too small to bother burning for heat. After another week passes, the car’s battery finally goes dead, and she almost immolates herself trying start a fire with gas from the Plymouth’s tank. Cindy’s writings become bleak, as she scratches out a few final words to her family.
Meanwhile, Tony is wandering through the woods, wildly hallucinating rescuers and civilization. He can’t quite believe his luck when the hunting cabin he comes upon in a clearing is not a mirage, and he spends a few days sleeping in front of a roaring fire and gorging himself on canned goods. Tony’s still no hero, though: convincing himself that, surely, Cindy must have been rescued by now, he lingers longer than strictly necessary.
Eventually he rallies and follows the trail he blazed back to the Cindy and the car. Intending to head back to the cabin, he pries the hood off of the car and they use it as a dredge to haul their “valuables”. Cindy tries to explain to him the revelations she had during the week, and that they have to work together to survive, but Tony is still annoyed by her slow-going on her frozen feet and her use of the word “gastronomy” to describe her delight at the packet of chipped beef he brought her.
Slowed down by Cindy and the snow obscuring his trail, Tony impulsively abandons the trek to the cabin when he hears search-and-rescue snowmobiles in the distance. When they attempt to cross a snowy slope to their rescuers by using the hood of the car as a toboggan, Tony crashes into a ravine, not only losing their food and blankets, but also breaking his ankle. Now totally exposed to the elements (and open to attack by a roaming pack of wild dogs), Cindy finds it progressively harder to urge him on as he gives up hope. WILL THEY SURVIVE????
Cut to Mrs. Lillian Littlejohn, a housewife who is spending her morning fussing over slipcovers for her chairs, and whether the roads are really clear enough to safely put her young children on the school bus. In the back of her mind, as a mother, she is worrying over reports of the (seemingly unrelated) disappearance of two teenagers during the big snow storm two weeks ago. Her jaw just about hits the floor when she glances out her front window and sees two figures stumbling out of the grounds of the State Park and up her driveway.
The book closes with an epilogue in the form of a letter from Cindy to Tony some weeks later, in which she assures Tony that she too is healing from her injuries, and admits that their ordeal will probably haunt her the rest of her life (“I’ve been eating like a pig all week, but I’ll never be as chubby as I was.”) Their parents are hailing them as heroes, but Cindy admits
It’s all changed, hasn’t it? They’re the same, but we’re not. None of them really understand.
She closes with an invitation for Tony to come visit her and her father once his leg has mended.
Mazer keeps the formula simple: Tony’s outdoorsmanship and Cindy’s book-smarts (particularly her knowledge of first aid) have to work together to get them off Tug Hill. The book is extremely fast-paced, coming in at a streamlined 140 pages. Despite all of Cindy’s talk of “change” at the end, there is not a whole lot of character development- throughout the nightmarish two weeks in the woods, Cindy is generous with her resources (e.g., cookies), while Tony is looking out for Tony (when he finds a petrified peanut butter sandwich shoved under the seat of the car he keeps it for himself).
Mazer also avoids any hint of a developing romance between the two, which is refreshing for a YA novel. While Cindy believes Tony is the only one who really understands her, she signs her letter “your fourth sister”.
Sign It Was Written In 1973 Department: It predates Conrail: “His house was the yellow two-family at the edge of the bridge that spanned a deep ravine through which ran the double tracks of the New York Central Railroad.”
Nepotism Department: Mazer is the husband of YA superstar Norma Fox Mazer.
Knowing Chuckle Department: Listening to the radio the first night they are stranded, they hear a report that “Five feet of snow had already fallen in Rochester, Buffalo and Watertown.”