Katherine Rundell is one of my favourite middle grade children’s writers. Her prose is soaring, her stories read like classics and the relationships she builds between her characters are deeply emotional. Most of Rundell’s books have a historic setting, but this one is never specifically dated. Despite that it did feel like it was set in a time gone by, perhaps the 50s or at most 70s. I think this was because it had a lot of Rundell’s Zimbabwean childhood wrapped up in the text itself. You felt close to the authors own childhood experiences and emotion, and parts of it felt deeply personal.
The story begins with the main character Wilhelmina, better known as Will or Wildcat. A feisty twelve year old girl living on a farm in Zimbabwe with her beloved father William. Life is carefree, with no locks and few rules and Will spends most of her time climbing mango trees with her pet monkey and African best friend Simon. The wild life suits Will’s untamed and honest personality. Will has never had the guidance of her mother, who died of malaria when she was only five, or the experience of social restrictions and norms . Her father has given her love but with the independence she has also been allowed a freedom unrestricted and at times indulgently so.
As the story unfolds and tragedy occurs, Will is forced from the life she knows and loves. She is forced to travel to England where she must attend an all-girl’s boarding school with strict codes of conduct in a place where the sun never shines. Here the book takes on an entirely new character and pace. Suddenly life feels more familiar to us and far less exciting and we easily feel Will’s pain in her new confinement.
When Will runs away from her problems and takes to the streets of London we are not shocked. Her survival skills kick in and though she learns to live rough, she is eventually made to face her problems and find the courage to over come them. I was relieved to find that at the end there was still a lot to wonder about Will’s new life and her future choices. Ending back at the boarding school was both satisfactory, realistic, hopeful but also troublesome. The book would make for a great discussion with kids, particularly girls, about which life feels more appealing and how they feel about the restrictions placed on their lives.
I was glad to see that some of the female characters at the school had more positive, redeeming features at the end of the book than they are first portrayed and that we are left on a note of uplifting hope. I definitely recommend this for its sweeping prose and depth of character and wild adventure. Enjoy reading!