Survival stories generally pit Man against Nature, with little other conflict. More romantic stories pit Man against Man, or Man against himself. In Strange Companion David must decide again and again whether his strange companion is more danger than benefit. He can abandon his companion at any time, and he knows that wrong decisions could lead to his death. Though some readers might disagree with David’s values, this is not a story of self sacrifice. From the moment he leaves his stepfather’s farm, David values his life and appreciates the “struggle for life” itself.
Dayton O. Hyde has written this story for ‘tweens’ without dumbing down its vocabulary. He presents survival skills and biological information about Whooping Cranes in a way that makes the information immediate and useful. Although there is little dialogue, the running narrative shifts seamlessly between David’s thoughts and descriptions of events. It also switches, appropriately, between monitoring David’s struggle for existence and the monitored existence of Whooping Cranes –first as an endangered species and then at the level of a single crane.
David must anticipate and suffer the consequences of his every choice. When he calculates wisely he succeeds. When he miscalculates or is momentarily foolish, we see what it costs him. With each setback David, in truly heroic fashion, comes to terms with his new situation and redirects himself to his long term purpose. One crisis, involving marauding wolves, stretches an experienced outdoorsman’s credibility but, as a calculated risk, David’s actions are warranted. The treacherous and unforgiving Canadian North pushes his judgments to their absolute limit, with some surprising outcomes. Not the least of these is his new view of the very human conflicts that made him run away in the first place.
In an ingenious parallel between David’s personal struggle with that of whooping cranes, Hyde shows us that extinction is, ultimately, a personal matter for man and animal. This broadest lesson may not be explicit but the story conveys the implicit message that an individual’s life is the ultimate standard by which every action must be chosen. This is a principle no child should live without.