I was lucky enough to request and receive a copy of this from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.
Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth, artwork by Rob Biddulph
Twelve year old Cara and her three younger siblings – six year old twins Bryn and Aria, and nine year old Enzo – live on a boat with their mother. When the canal is drained for cleaning, they find a locked safe. Intrigued and excited by what might be inside, they decide to keep it to try and open it.
But disaster strikes before they have chance and they soon find themselves fleeing, with their mum in hospital and a thief on their tail.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in some ways, as after books set in the Himalayas, Australia/India and Louisiana this one takes place much closer to home – in Wales. However, it was just as transportive and vividly depicted.
Nature plays a huge part, as you’d expect if you’re familiar with Jess’ writing. It feels like an education, exposing small treasures of nature hidden closer than we think in the world around us. Plants, animals and natural phenomena are described and detailed with wonder and respect as a natural part of the story, and environmental concerns and issues are part of the conversation throughout.
The way Jess threads a fairytale-style story through the book too with a paragraph or so at the start of each chapter also adds to the overall emphasis on nature – its bounty as well as its power, alongside both our responsibility for it and dependence on it. I thought this combined with the more contemporary aspects of the book gave a really nice balance and really suited the backdrop of the story.
Cara and her family live on a narrowboat and I loved the way life on the boat was depicted – I think the early chapters which set the scene of their life on ‘Newt’ are probably my favourite from the book, even though not much is really ‘happening’ yet and would make for the BEST cosy Autumn re-read (which is exactly what I intend to do!)
There’s no pretence that boat-living is easy, but it seemed satisfying, close and rewarding. The snug fireside games, books and general co-existence making up for the almost non-existent TV, for example. Being able to spot shooting stars and wildlife from your roof compensating for the cramped living space and non-negotiable, must-be-done-to-live chores. Jess spent several years living on a narrowboat and it shows – this aspect of the book especially is written with such fondness and insight.
Similarly, Cara’s struggles with other children also felt compassionately written with a real understanding, and my heart went out to her as she tries to deal with both their reaction to her living on a boat (or, more commonly and interestingly, their thoughts about it as she believes them to be), her own shyness and, most of all the bullying behaviour she finds herself on the receiving end of. I thought this especially was very well written, showing the way this sort of thing can be so insidious and the way the worry and uncertainty chip away unseen.
On the flipside of this is the gloriously close and caring relationship between Cara and her siblings and the blossom of hope that develops from an unlikely place in friendships she tentatively starts to make.
Both of these are really given chance to shine as we journey with Cara, her siblings and unlikely accomplice Keaton. And what a journey it is! By boat, train and then on foot we accompany them first in doggedly trying to escape from the thief who is hunting them down to retrieve ‘his’ safe – a heart-pounding, tense affair.
Then there’s the walking – taking a route only ever travelled by car before, they soon realise this way takes much longer. It is arduous – long and tiring, with dwindling food supplies and poorly equipped for the rough terrain and snowy, stormy weather; as their journey becomes more and more isolated, in worsening weather, I really began to worry for them. But the way in which Jess balances the set backs, dangers, risks and difficulties with the joys of being outdoors was wonderful, and there is never an absence of hope.
And, as with all of her books that – along with the wonder of nature – is the thread that runs through the book. There is always hope.
So many children will see themselves in this – those who’ve suffered bullying, found it hard to make friends or felt like an outsider especially, but also those with hearing loss (or relatives who have), those who’ve experienced a parental break up and those who’ve been wrapped in cotton wool. And for all of them there is positivity, hope and a sense of normality – this may be difficult at times, but it is not you.
Very much in keeping with Jess’ trademark style and themes, and once more with gorgeous artwork from Rob Biddulph as the icing on the cake; this is another brilliant adventure full of family bonds, tentative friendships, excitement, emotion, natural wonder and most of all heart.