When I was a kid I loved books like My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Julie of the Wolves. Looking back, they can seem quite dated – questionable environmental ethics and anthropology and all that – but the sense of adventure that they conveyed, and the sense that I too, if necessary, could someday rise to the occasion and share a bond with nature, were catnip to a middle-grades reader.
Falcon Wild is a new book in that long tradition, and this one features a more realistic (though still very slightly romanticized) portrait of a human/animal partnership. Stark, a white Gyrfalcon, is a falconry bird born and raised. Still, she’s nearly more falconry bird than 13-year-old Karma (yes, she has hippy parents) can handle at the book’s opening. But when the two get lost in the Montana wilderness, along with a 15-year-old boy named Cooper whose rough home situation has already gotten him branded a delinquent, they have to rise to the occasion or die. The survival aspects are well-presented if fully-packed for few days’ journey – there is one major, dramatic wild animal attack scenario but for the most part Karma and Cooper are at risk from falls on bad terrain, sudden inclement weather, hunger and thirst and just plain not knowing where they are.
An aspect of Falcon Wild that really sets it apart from the books I mentioned in my first paragraph is that Karma is sometimes alone, but never unconnected from society. She’s in the wilderness not as an escape, but on a mission – she’s trying to get help for her father and younger brother, injured and trapped on a remote road by a car crash. This adds a ticking-time-bomb element to the plot and keeps Karma, who has a very serious sense of responsibility, moving forward. There’s no leisurely building a home in the wilderness aspect to this book. It’s all about finding the highway and getting out, even as Karma shows increasing survival skills and Stark masters the art of the hunt.
That sense of responsibility also extends to Stark, who is in Karma’s hands in the first place because her previous owner was not so hot at this whole ‘looking after his birds’ thing. Given the horrible consequences of irresponsible falconry for birds, it’s definitely a plus to see the text emphasize this. Of course, those who aren’t into hunting or falconry at all will not dig this book, but that almost goes without saying.
I suspect that the appetite of middle grades readers for wilderness adventure stories will never disappear, and if you have such a reader in your life, you could do far worse than picking them up a copy of this book, which will be available in September.
Falcon Wild by Terry Lynn Johnson, $16.99, Charlesbridge Publishing