CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 19 . . . . January 20, 2012
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press/Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2011.
214 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
The howl wakes me, calls me from one darkness to another. My right eye opens but my left is a throbbing slit. Bare branches. Twilight beyond. I’m on my back. Outside. Somewhere. I’m alive. Barely.
My head pounds. I raise my hand to it but my frozen fingers feel nothing. Their grazed and swollen knuckles tell me numbness is probably a blessing. Was I in a fight? I roll onto my side, gasping small clouds of steam as pain stabs my ribs.
How long have I been lying here? A thin layer of snow covering my legs shifts as I move. Bruised but not broken, thank God.
Sitting up, I blow into my hands. The heat of it stings my reddened fingers and I shove them into my pockets, surprised to find a pair of woollen mittens that must be mine. I slip them on. Shivers wrack my body. Whatever happened to me, it hasn’t killed me, but sitting in this frigid snow surely will.
Standing takes more effort than I expected. I stagger a few times and when I finally get to my feet, everything spins around me. Gripping a nearby birch trunk, I close my eyes and take shallow breaths. After a few moments, the spinning slows and I glance around the clearing. A gorge of sorts, with a fifteen-foot cliff rising up behind me and a mild slope ahead. A river bed, perhaps. Yet none of it seems familiar.
“Hello?” I call. The yell clangs in my head like a spoon in an empty pot.
No tracks lead in or out of the clearing. Not even mine. Odd. The dusting of flakes wouldn’t have covered them completely. My boots crunch in the snow as I turn.
Surely, someone is looking for me. Must know I am missing.
With the above description, the third volume of the “Greener Grass” series opens, and Jack Byrne wakes up in the wilderness of northern Ontario with no idea how he got there or even who he is. He struggles to survive and receives help from two unlikely sources: a timber wolf and a young Aboriginal boy. Jack has no idea if his family will eventually rescue him, or if he must depend on his own resources to either return home or die in the attempt.
The novel centres on Jack and is written from his point of view. His coming-of-age involves fighting the natural elements, the supernatural he perceives around him and his own weakness and uncertainty. Readers quickly realize that Jack’s acts of bravery could more correctly be called acts of bravado which often end up backfiring and causing more problems than they solve. Jack, on the surface, is cocky and confident yet a young boy is still lingering just beneath this adult facade.
Pignat tells a great story which brings characters alive and makes readers care about them Her descriptions of the northern forest, the cold weather and the unending hunt for food and shelter are all realistic. Jack’s survival depends in part on Mahingan and the others in his family. Through these characters, Pignat shows an understanding of and respect for Algonquin history and culture. The grandfather of the family is a wise elder who has a great deal to teach both his own grandson and Jack, both about themselves and about being part of a family.
Timber Wolf will be different things to different readers. It is a page-turning adventure as Jack battles for survival, even escaping a madman he names Skinner. It is a coming-of-age story also, and readers watch Jack as dreams and flashbacks gradually help him understand who he is and where he came from. He deals with guilt over past mistakes as well as the responsibility of knowing he cannot continue to exist as a lone wolf but needs to find and care for his family and accept their care in return. And lastly, the novel is Canadian historical fiction which gives readers a glimpse not only of life in the logging industry of the mid-1800’s and the early days of Bytown (Ottawa) but also of the rich Algonquin tradition of the same era.
Pignat’s third novel continues the story of Jack and his sister Kit who left Ireland to come to Canada in Greener Grass and Wild Geese. It is a satisfying part of the saga and potentially paves the way for a sequel as Jack and his sister are finally re-united just at the end of the book. It can also stand alone and apart from the series as a strong historical adventure which will captivate female and, especially, male young adult readers.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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