“The Honest Truth,” by Dan Gemeinhart. Scholastic Press, $16.99.

The Honest Truth CoverThere’s plenty to like here: a compelling story, a mix of local sites, a debuting novelist who is a teacher-librarian in Cashmere (Chelan County) and a very special dog.

The central figures are a cancer-stricken 12-year-old named Mark, his buddy named Beau, his best friend Jessie (a girl) and Mount Rainier.

And why Mount Rainier you ask? Well, his ambition before he dies is to climb the iconic peak – and he’s willing to do it no matter what the conditions.

Knowing his Wenatchee parents will not allow the sick youngster to achieve that goal, he becomes a runaway and the subject of a high-profile search from Spokane to Seattle amidst plenty of television bulletins picturing himself and Beau. Jessie, however, knows his destination but is sworn to secrecy while Mark’s frantic parents and authorities track down every new lead.

The bald-headed Mark and Beau’s near-death adventure from an attack by young thugs on a Seattle street, to a narrow drowning escape on a rain-soaked island, to Mark’s miraculous recovery of Beau from a Mount Rainier crevasse are just a few of the gripping ingredients of this literal cliffhanger.

In addition to Jessie, the only person who knows the whereabouts of the runaway tandem is Wesley, a park-service biologist who picks up the pair on a narrow park road during an intense storm. Wesley has seen the TV bulletins of the missing pair and, after a litany of questions to Mark, finally breaks through the youngster’s soft veneer that he is the search subject.

Feeling sorry for the pair, Wesley delivers them to the lodge at Paradise and warns Mark he will let authorities know within a couple of hours if they set foot up the mountain and do not return.

Trying to grasp Mark’s psyche and in Wesley’s words, the author writes, “Maybe he’s tired of being ‘that poor sick kid.’ Maybe he wants to be the hero for once. Maybe he’s had everything else taken away from him. His friends. His family. His future. All the stuff he wants to do. His life. So maybe all he’s got left is his death. That’s all that he’s got. And so he wants it.”

Mark’s motivation to climb the mountain is also triggered by a promise he made to his dying grandfather, which he relates to Wesley. “I’ve gotten no choice. For my whole life, no choices. Let me choose this. Let me have this one thing before all my choices get taken away again.”

Given the options of trekking with a guide or Wesley, Mark chooses to be alone with Beau on what he thinks might be his final outing in life.

With little food and underdressed, Mark and Beau, his “angel” by his side, set out for the summit during a major storm. “Mount Rainier is an awesome mountain,” writes Gemeinhart, “It is fierce and it is proud. It is almost angry against the sky.”

From this point forward, it’s hang-on time for the reader who would like to reel in this pair and bring Mark to his senses in the warmth of a nearby lodge.

Caught in the storm during an agonizing recovery of Beau from a dangerous crevasse, Mark experiences a tearful wake-up call and sudden recognition that he doesn’t want to die yet but couldn’t continue through life angry and alone.

“All the world’s a storm, I guess,” he says, “and we all get lost sometimes. We look for the mountains in the clouds to make it all seem like it’s worth it, like it means something. And sometimes we see them. And we keep going.”

Heading back down the mountain and in need of rest and shelter, Mark finds a small hollow to catch some sleep. When he awakens, Beau is gone, setting off a dramatic chain of events that leaves Mark’s survival totally in doubt.

Designed for readers 8-12, “The Honest Truth,” is a riveting drama that has been sold in six languages. Packed with an intoxicating blend of tension and passion, the tantalizing plot is an emotional bumpy ride that travels the slippery slope of sentiment and survival while keeping the reader gasping at every new challenge throughout.

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