June 8, 2011

Book Talk: Wild Life

I love Cynthia DeFelice. My kids love all of her books- especially Weasel and The Ghost of Fossil Glen. I was mesmerized by Signal. So, when I got Wild Life in the mail, I couldn't wait to read it. I was very torn as I read this novel. I don't like guns, I don't like hunting and I sure don't like the idea of a kid hunting with a gun. That being said, my own issues aside, I can name about 12 boys at Lemme School who would love this book, as boys, as outdoorsy kids and as hunters themselves. Because of those boys, I finished the book. If not for the boys, I wouldn't have read it- the scene of Erik cleaning his kill just about put me over the edge. (But I could read The Hunger Games without batting an eye- go figure).  But, more on that later. 

Wild Life by Cynthia DeFelice  (F DEF) is the story of Erik, a 6th grade boy who has just learned that both his mother and father will be leaving for Iraq in 4 days. He wants to stay with his best friend and neighbor, but must move from New York to North Dakota to live with grandparents he doesn't really know. Not much is said about the departure, except that Erik didn't take it very well. He seemed more upset about not getting to hunt that weekend than he was about his parents going to war and being gone for 6 months. May be it's a boy thing, but I needed the character to show more emotion. I don't think boys reading this book will be bothered by his lack of sadness. (Girls would though).
The night before Erik leaves for North Dakota, he overhears his parents discussing his grandparents. He hears his mom say that she was glad to get away from them  as fast as she could. When he arrives in North Dakota, he understands why. He will be living in the middle of nowhere with no phone, no computer and only 3 tv stations. He will have to take the bus to a school that is in a different town and all of the shops and stores are boarded up. And, worst of all, his grandfather, Big Darrell is cold and mean. Erik feels like he isn't welcome or wanted by Big Darrell. Even Oma, his grandmother seems to cower to Big Darrell. When his grandparents show him to his room, they keep him from entering the door at the top of the stairs. Erik realizes that this room must belong to his Uncle Dan who died during The Vietnam War.
The next day while Big Darrell is out harvesting beets and Oma is in town with friends, Erik decides to explore the farm. His first stop is the room at the top of the stairs. When he looks in, he sees that it is fact is Dan's old bedroom and it looks just as it must have looked in the 1970's. He see photos of Dan, his military uniform and in the closet, hunting gear and a shot gun. Erik heads outside to check out the land when he sees an animal enter the barn. Upon further inspection, he sees that it is a hunting dog that has gotten into a tussle with a porcupine. The poor dog's muzzle and face is covered in quills. Erik immediately calls Oma who asks the local vet to come help the dog. 
When Big Darrel comes home that night, he tells Erik that the dog must go- that he said no more dogs, ever. Erik can't stand this thought and so the next day, he decides to run away. He goes into Dan's room and packs the gun and shells and puts on all of Dan's camo gear. He takes the dog, who he named Quill, and leaves. He has always been fascinated with pioneer life and is excited to live off the land. When his food runs out, he realizes that he has to hunt for his own food. With the help of Quill, he is able to hunt pheasant and rabbits. He becomes very observant of the land and nature as he travels with Quill. 
On a cold and snowy night, he finds shelter in what looks to be an abandoned barn. Just as he is falling asleep, he hears a car door slam and then footsteps approaching. A man recognizes Erik from the television and tells him that he will take him home and collect his $5000 reward. Erik is shocked that his grandparents would offer that much money to save him. Erik comes up with a plan to evade the man and get back to the farm on his own.  I won't spoil the ending- so you will have to read it to see how things turn out between Big Darrell and Erik. And you will see if Erik gets to keep the dog. I will say that the dog does not die...so don't worry!

About the hunting aspect of this book. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about hunting, and I respect those who do it responsibly. You are reading the blog of the girl who watched Bambi and stood up in a packed theater and yelled "WHAT HAPPENED TO BAMBI'S MOMMY?!?!" I think that movie left a mark on me. As if reading my mind,  Ms. DeFelice writes on page 120, just as Erik is cleaning a pheasant:
"Holding the limp, warm body that had been so full of life just a moment ago, he  was flooded with a powerful remorse. This bird had hatched from an egg, been raised by his mother, and survived despite brutal weather and the sharp, watching eyes of hawks and owls and coyotes. Now it was dead, and he had killed it. The enormity of this settled upon him and the exhilaration of the moment before mixed with regret. ...he couldn't help feeling sorrow about it, even as he was grateful for the meat and proud of his and Quill's accomplishments." (page 120)
Because of page 120, I am able to hand this book to any child in my library without having to question my own opinions. The book teaches a powerful lesson about the connection that all living things have. And in a way, that I'm not sure the kids will get, parallels the death of the pheasant to that of his Uncle so many years ago.


  1. I'm always glad to see people discussing books boys might like! I'll see if our library has copies.

  2. I'm glad that you shared some of your reservations about the book, and the fact that you were able to finish the book despite your qualms concerning hunting and the like. I did find myself doing roughly the same thing a few months back when I needed to complete a series I thought I should really read for our Whodunit theme this May/June.

    That being said, I have a feeling that boys might enjoy books that do not necessarily deal with guns or hunting for that matter - sci fi, graphic-novelisque genres with an emotional wallop might get them as well. But you're right in noting that oftentimes it's good to check out titles that at first glance, you'd know would appeal to boys' sensibilities.

  3. I know that this is a late comment. This book has been very popular with both girls and boys at our school.