Andrew Smith

The Alex Crow

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The Alex Crow Summary

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Andrew Smith’s young adult science fiction novel The Alex Crow follows main character Ariel Burgess, who, surviving a horrific attack on his village, is adopted by a tech-savvy family in Virginia. Ariel and his adopted brother, Max are shipped off to a camp without technology soon after Ariel arrives in Virginia. At the camp, Ariel encounters a number of strange individuals—many who make Ariel wonder if the camp’s mission is exactly what it seems. Other threads of the narrative include the account of the ship Alex Crow, which was trapped in ice during a voyage in the 1880s, and a story that follows the “melting man,” whose madness causes him to hear voices urging him to commit acts of violence.

Fifteen-year-old Ariel Burgess is from a small village in the war-torn Middle East. As the story begins, Ariel’s village is attacked ruthlessly, his entire family killed, along with nearly everyone else he knows. Ariel survives by hiding inside a refrigerator, where the invaders won’t find him. Alone in the world, Ariel is lost and traumatized.

Soon after the attack, Ariel is adopted by a family in the small town of Sunday, Virginia. Happy to forgo life as an orphaned refugee in a camp, Ariel warms to his new family despite their strange antics. His adopted father, Jake, a tech wizard and top-level researcher, reanimated their family pet—a robotic, depressed crow who lives with them in their large home. His adopted mother, Natalie, is strong and self-assured. Ariel is especially fond of his adopted brother, Max, who welcomes him into the home.

Ariel arrives just in time to be sent to an all-boys summer camp—he and Max attend free, a benefit of Jake’s job with a secretive research company, where he works among the elite scientists on staff. The camp is about breaking technology addiction, and so has no Internet, phones, computers, or other technological devices. This “no screens” camp seems harmless, at first, but the longer he and Max spend there, the more Ariel is suspicious.

Though Camp Merrie-Seymour for Boys is full of strange and darkly humorous characters, one of the most profound and unsettling is Mrs. Nussbaum, an older woman, primly dressed, with an enthusiasm Ariel describes as “an octave below the sound baby dolphins make.” Ariel finds the mock cheer of everyone in the camp suspicious, but Mrs. Nussbaum is the first person who lets on that everything they are being old at Camp Merrie-Seymour might not be as simple as it seems.

As the mystery grows and tension builds, the novel is interspersed with adjoining narratives that play on the symbols building in Ariel’s new life in Virginia. The first is the story of the Alex Crow, a ship manned in the 1880s that was trapped in thick sheets of ice and could not break free. The diaries of the men trapped on board connect to the strange sense of entrapment that Ariel feels at camp. The other narrative is about someone referred to only as “melting man,” a psychopath who believes fully that he has received orders from Joseph Stalin to commit acts of violence.

The novel is humorous but dark with an air of suspicion and mystery, and questions about bioethics, immigration, and refugee camps. The book is also a coming of age story about what we reveal of ourselves and how it can change the course of our lives.

Andrew Smith has written a number of novels, including Winger, Grasshopper Jungle, and 100 Sideways Miles, among others. He won a Printz Honor for Grasshopper Jungle, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and was long-listed for a Carnegie Medal. He grew up in California and has written nine novels to date. The sequel to his award-winning novel, Grasshopper Jungle, is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster.