THERE is something in the human spirit that responds to the challenge to survive in an environment stripped of nonessentials. Perhaps this is why Daniel Defoe's ``Robinson Crusoe'' not only became such a classic following its publication in 1719, but also spawned a literary genre: the adventure story of an individual surviving alone in the wilderness. Today's adventure story is not merely entertainment. Three new titles, for example, are substantial works that display a collective conscience and sophisticated realism. There is still an absence of female adventurers, but these books ought to interest both boys and girls.
A Dog Worth Stealing, by William Corbin (Orchard Books, New York, $12.95, 163 pp., ages 13 to 15), tells the story of Judd Linden, a boy who treks into the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest in defiance of his father and his new stepmother. He discovers a beautiful German shepherd in the woods, in the company of two suspect characters who, it turns out, are covertly growing and distributing marijuana. ``Rescuing'' the dog from possible maltreatment by these men leads Judd into adventures that compel him to confront a difficult home situation, a school bully, and ultimately his own integrity.
This is a taut book with genuine adventure. Written for teens, it is not a simple story. The prose is dense and descriptive, yet there are moments of tenderness and illumination. The way Corbin depicts Judd's stepmother and her insecurities, as well as Judd's gradual appreciation of her, is believable and touching.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen (Bradbury Press, New York, $12.95, 195 pp., ages 11 to 13), deserves special attention. Written in terse, poetic prose, it is an adventure story in the best tradition, with each chapter moving from one climactic moment to the next. As the story opens, a boy is aloft in an airplane with a pilot who suddenly collapses. Forced to fly the plane, the youngster eventually lands it in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, where he survives on his own for 56 days until he is finally found.
Gary Paulsen writes with the intensity and power of Robert Cormier, and the grace and style of Paula Fox - a winning combination of qualities. The book is as much an inward journey as a wilderness hike. In fact, protagonist Brian Robeson begins to see changes within himself as a kind of spiritual resurrection: ``In measured time 47 days had passed since the crash. Forty-seven days, he thought, since he had died and been born as the new Brian.'' He begins to think in terms of ``the new time,'' measures his days as ``First Day,'' etc., eats ``First Meat,'' as he evaluates his life in an almost primeval light.
Teachers will like this book for the richness of the text and the artfulness of the writing. Young adults will like it because it's such an engaging tale.
A minor flaw is the book's epilogue. In tidying up a lot of unanswered questions, it seems a bit too convenient, even tagged on. In fact, the way it is written, it could almost seem like an indication that this is a ``true'' story - which it isn't.
Charles Hammer's Wrong-Way Ragsdale (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $12.95, 183 pp., ages 10 and up) is another worthy addition to the adventure canon. Like Paulsen's ``Hatchet,'' this story centers on a protagonist riding a small biplane into the wilderness. But this time, the central character, Emmett Ragsdale, takes along his little sister, Essie. What distinguishes this book is its focus on family rather than the individual. The story begins with the father, a frustrated pilot himself, watching planes take off and land on a small runway near his home. As it turns out, the son acts out his father's fantasy adventure, but at the conclusion of the book we see a regenerated father as well as a matured young Emmett. This is a well-paced adventure with good characterization, humor, credibility, and dignity.
Waiting for the Rain, by Sheila Gordon (Orchard Books, $12.95, 214 pp., ages 13 and up), is not strictly an adventure story, but rather a fully realized novel that deserves to be read by adults as well as teens. An affecting book subtitled ``a novel of South Africa,'' it is the story of Tengo, a black, and Frikkie, his Afrikaaner friend. In the opening passages these two boys are shown as they play together; then, in the second half of the book, they mature and grow apart.
``Waiting for the Rain'' is an honest portrayal of the inhumanity of apartheid. Through the experience of the two young men, readers see some of the influences that led to the 1976 uprising in Soweto, even though no specific dates are mentioned. Young people who have studied or at least heard about apartheid in social studies classes will find an added emotional dimension here. In one particularly poignant episode the young Frikkie, realizing he will one day run his uncle's farm, asks Tengo if he would be his ``boss-boy.'' When Tengo not only doesn't answer but runs off, Frikkie can't understand what's happened. It's a moving portrayal of the widespread lack of awareness among South African whites of this pervasive social injustice.
Gordon is a fine writer whose skill is evident in the way the story builds slowly, without simplistic delineation of right or wrong. She shows an inner struggle as it begins to surface in frustration and finally erupts in revolution. At times her touches of metaphor and imagery are brilliant.
The title of the book comes from the perceptions of Tengo, a sensitive student with a talent for art who can't attend classes because of student demonstrations. He likens himself to crops during a drought, ``waiting for the rain.'' The rain, in this case, comes as a storm, and neither Tengo nor Frikkie is the same ever again.
The novel ends with a dramatic confrontation between the two young men, as Tengo is chased by a soldier who turns out to be Frikkie. This particular ending seems contrived, but it is handled skillfully. The book is a strong one that surmounts even this minor flaw.
Stephen Fraser is associate editor of the children's magazine Highlights for Children.