Twelve-year-old Erik Carlson is having an absolutely fantastic week. He’s just earned the high score in his firearms safety class, the final step to obtaining his New York state hunting license. He’s just a few days away from his first hunting trip with his best friend and his friend’s father. But Erik soon learns that his Army Reservist parents are both called to active duty overseas. Erik is sent to North Dakota to live with grandparents he hasn’t seen since he was a toddler, and can’t even remember. Erik’s struggles to deal with his displacement and disappointment form the backdrop for Wild Life, a thoughtful, well-paced novel by popular tween author Cynthia DeFelice.
After a long plane trip and an even-longer pick-up truck ride, Erik finds himself on his grandparents' small farm in rural North Dakota. With no cell phone signal, no Internet, no friends, and only a few fuzzy TV channels, Erik feels lonely and disoriented. His grandmother (Oma) does her best to make Erik feel at home, but his grandfather (Big Darrell) only grunts and scowls. Erik’s outlook brightens a bit when he finds a young hunting dog injured by porcupine quills. With the help of the local vet, the hound – whom Erik names Quill – recovers quickly. But when Quill’s owner is found, Erik’s prospects for happiness fade again. Faced with losing the dog and living the next six months in misery, Erik decides to leave. Outfitted with a backpack of food and a 12-gague shotgun. Erik and Quill start walking across the vast North Dakota plains, with no particular destination in mind.
DeFelice keeps the story moving with a simple plot. The focus remains on Erik as he practices the skills of an outdoorsman. In a constant quest for food, water, and shelter, Erik doesn’t have time to brood or fret. He’s not really running away. Instead, he’s trying to gain a sense of self-determination.
A subplot involves Erik’s uncle Dan, who was killed in the Vietnam War. Oma and Big Darrell keep Dan’s bedroom as a shrine, and this room provides the shotgun and other hunting gear for Erik’s escape. Of course, Dan’s death has been the source of Big Darrell’s surly demeanor. Although Erik doesn’t realize it, he likely reminds Big Darrell of his long-dead son. All of this leads to serious themes of acceptance and healing. Both Erik and Big Darrell must go on, even though events beyond their control have changed their lives.
Of course, gun ownership is a polarizing issue in today’s society. Wild Life doesn’t enter the gun control debate, but hunting is featured prevalently. Erik continuously practices safe gun handling, and hunting concepts are introduced throughout the book. Erik’s not a video-gamer blasting away at everything he sees. He hunts so that he can eat, and he knows he must conserve his limited supply of shotgun shells. Erik’s first successful shot yields a mature realization that all true hunters understand.
“The bird’s head flopped heavily to the side, and Erik was suddenly aware of the finality of what he had done. Holding the limp, warm body that had been so full of life, he was flooded with remorse… The enormity of this settled upon him, and the exhilaration of a moment before mixed with regret. He felt as if he, Quill, and the pheasant had each played a part in a scene as ancient and natural as the earth itself. Still, he couldn’t help feeling sorrow about it, even as he was grateful for the meat and proud of his and Quill’s accomplishment.”
Will Wild Life be popular in all communities? Probably not. In fact, some people will be offended by the image of a teenager cradling a shotgun on the cover. But, if you live in an area where hunting is viewed as a natural, honest way of obtaining food, you probably have readers interested in the topic. Fortunately, Wild Life gives you the opportunity to provide a well-written book that promotes safe, responsible gun ownership and a robust lifestyle. Feel confident in adding a copy to your library media center, and your classroom library as well.