If you read just one book this year, read Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder. Her second book, Rooftoppers, was brilliant but this – with its wild landscape, wolves and feisty heroine – is something else… It is a children’s classic in the making.
Feodora and her mother live in the snow-bound woods of Russia, in a house full of food and fireplaces. Ten minutes away, in a ruined chapel, lives a pack of wolves. Feodora’s mother is a wolf wilder, and Feo is a wolf wilder in training. A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: it is a person who teachers tamed animals for fend for themselves, and to fight and to run, and to be wary of humans. When the simmering resentment of her neighbours turns to murderous hostility, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of survival and adventure, trust and tenacity, and the toughness that the love between mothers and daughters inspires. And, of course, wolves.
The opening line – ‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl’ – immediately draws the reader into Rundell’s bold and beautiful storytelling. Her character descriptions are exquisite (how about this for the description of Feo’s mother: ‘her face was built on the blueprint used for snow leopards and saints’) and the bond between mother and daughter is stunningly evoked: ‘there was only one person Feo loved properly, with the sort of fierce pride that gets people into trouble, or prison, or history books. Her mother, she thought, could do anything.’ Rundell casts a spell over the reader as she writes. Her narrative voice is uncompromising and original but it is also delightfully funny, particularly when we see the world through Feo’s fierce eyes: ‘Old people like sitting down. And growing ear hair. And… soup.’ And the moment when Feo mistakes agitators for alligators is absolutely genius.
As the story unfolds, Feo learns about the people and animals worth her trust and about those it is important to stand up to. Her relationship with soldier boy, Ilya, is brilliantly portrayed and at so many moments Moontrug’s heart ached for Ilya: ‘I sleep with a dictionary under my pillow sometimes. Just to remind me that there are more words in the world than “Come here, boy”.’ Feo’s guard is up when she first meets Ilya (‘Feo firmly believed that if ever you told someone you were scared, sooner or later you’d have to kill them’) but as their friendship grows, so does Feo’s trust and the moment Feo discovers there are more children than just Ilya ready to fight her cause is exquisitely written. Moontrug wanted to leap up onto her chair and shout her name out loud. Rundell does that to you. She offers you a brave style of writing that forces you into the story and carries you with its characters – and its wolves. And there is a wisdom in the writing that touches the reader deep inside: ‘eyebrows and nostrils and mouth and forehead – the places humans let emotion leak out’.
The plot moves forward with urgent energy, from the moment Feo flees her house in the woods to when she hurls snowballs at adult intruders. But amongst the frenetic energy of the chases and the hostility of the Russian army, Rundell offers us a slower, more thoughtful kind of magic. Dancing. ‘A kind of slowish magic. Like writing with your feet.’ The Wolf Wilder is a story of discovery: of Feo learning to fend for herself, to put her trust in the wolves and other children around her and it is a story that champions the child: ‘Children are the toughest creatures on the planet. They endure.’ And Moontrug has a feeling this book will endure. It is effortlessly perfect and there will be children, years from now, who will leap up onto their chairs and shout Feo’s name. A classic children’s book. For sure.
PS: ‘Socks are key ingredients for adventures.’