Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wild Things, Clay Carmichael

Title:  Wild Things
Author:  Clay Carmichael
Publisher:  Front Street
Year:  2009
Pages:  241
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Love, Courage, Family, Mental Illness, Grief
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Zoe learned to take care of herself at a very young age.  Her father left before she was born, and her mentally ill mother went through a series of boyfriends over the years.  Their treatment of Zoe went from benign neglect to outright hostility, causing Zoe to realize early in life that it's best to rely on no one but yourself.  When her mother takes her own life, Zoe is send to live with her father's brother, her uncle Dr. Henry Royston.  Formerly a surgeon, Henry now lives in the middle of nowhere, creating stormy, muscular sculptures and volunteering at the local clinic.  Henry and Zoe find that they have many things in common: grief, a mercurial personality, and walls they've constructed to keep the rest of the world at bay.  But when Zoe sees a miraculous white deer in the woods, and meets the young feral boy that takes care of her, she is thrown into a local secret that forces her to let her guard down and take a chance on asking for the help that she never thought she's need.

I adored this book!  From the very beginning, Zoe was a character that I could sink my teeth into. Fiery, temperamental, wise and naive at the same time, she is an excellent example of quality character development.  In fact, all of the characters are well-written and interesting, with qualities that will endear them to any reader.  One of the most interesting character in the book is a feral cat, which Zoe names C'Mere, who represents the wild spirit that both Zoe and her uncle Henry possess. The cat is slowly tamed by Zoe, and that experience directly mirrors how Zoe and her uncle tame each other through patient care and attention.

There are many references to Zoe's past, including some of the men that were a part of her mother's life, for whatever brief period of time they were able to stay.  It would have been easy for Carmichael to turn these characters into your typical stereotype of the nefarious "stepfather", but his treatment of them is actually much more nuanced.  Zoe's irresponsible, mentally ill mother is also treated with some compassion in the story, despite the damage that her condition and lack of adequate treatment did to Zoe.  I found myself feeling sympathy for all of them, a feeling that was only intensified from knowing of children in similar situations.

There are many, many things to talk about with this book, including use of the cat as a metaphor for Zoe, suicide and mental illness, what it means to be vulnerable and open to love, and standing up for what you believe in. The story is told in the first person, with short interludes where the cat is the narrator, making the narrative structure something interesting.  And, as stated at the beginning, this book would make a great study of author's craft in regards to characterization.

Teacher Resources: 
Rebecca Caudill Book Guide
California Young Readers Award Guide
Clay Carmichael's Website

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