by David Almond
Published by Delacorte
229 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Whitbread-winning author David Almond's most recent book is about the place where magic, dreams and everyday life collide. Almond's prose is elegant, sparse and powerful. He manages to speak volumes with the things he doesn't say, while entrancing his readers with what he does. Kit's Wilderness is a tautly rendered story filled with equal portions of suspense, mystery and wonder. His characters are real, his situations plausible even if somewhat fantastical and his conclusions satisfying. In fact, Kit's Wilderness satisfies on every level.
In Kit's Wilderness, 13-year-old Christopher Watson -- that's Kit -- has moved back to the town that is his ancestral home of Stoneygate, an old mining town in England. His grandmother has died and Kit's parents want his grandfather's remaining years to be happy. Grandfather Watson worked in the town's nearby coal mines as did his father and his father before him. In fact, most of the town's children are descended from men who spent most of their lives below ground level. As his grandfather tells him, "As a lad I'd wake up trembling, knowing that as a Watson born in Stoneygate I'd soon be following my ancestors into the pit."
Though the coal mine has long been closed, it holds an understandable fascination for the town's children. For a group of early teen misfits, led by 13-year-old John Askew, the pit holds a special allure. As the new kid, it doesn't take long for Kit to fall in with them. Every so often, the small bunch of adolescents troop down into the pit. There in candlelight, with knives and illicit cigarettes, they play the game of Death.
The water came to me and I sipped it. The cigarette came to me and I drew on it.... I stared down at the knife as Askew laid it on the glass.
While it sounds like this snippet gives away a lot -- perhaps even a conclusion -- this scene plays out very near the beginning of the book. And if it sounds genuinely frightening, it is. Almond's mastery is such that he takes his young readers on a haunting journey that manages to hang in some positive messages in a very subtle way. That is to say that, while Kit is the first 13-year-old protagonist of a book aimed at that age group I've ever encountered taking a drag on a smoke, Almond successfully uses the incident as a sort of sharp punctuation. The drawing on the cigarette seems like a physical manifestation of the peer pressure he's become vulnerable to since the relocation of his family. But there's more here. So much more.
Almond weaves in enough threads for three kids' books, with some left over to do justice to a novel aimed at a more adult readership. Kit's strong and growing relationship with his grandfather is threatened by the latter's ill health. So the family elements in Kit's Wilderness are very strong. Kit's growing friendship with a girl named Allie provides some wonderful dialog between these two likable and vivacious characters. Kit's dreams are rich and connected, it seems, with the fantastical events that begin to unfold around John Askew in the depths of the pit.
As with all truly successful novels aimed at this age group, moral maturation happens in the time we spend with Kit. He learns several important life lessons and grows as a person as, it seems, do those around him. Almond's virtuosity here is awesome, however. The reader never feels led or fooled. Rather Almond tells his story honestly. With integrity. And the reader is left the richer for it.
David Almond's first children's book, Skellig, was the winner of the 1998 Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award. With the storytelling mastery that Almond displays here, it's not difficult to see why. | July 2000
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.