This book was a random find while browsing in my local bookshop recently. Wow, how I missed visiting bricks-and-mortar bookshops pre-vaccination; it’s the best way to stumble across new and interesting titles. The children’s tables are my favourite area to explore, looking for new titles I can read to my daughter at bedtime, but usually finding a few that I’m secretly buying all for myself. As soon as I read the blurb on the back cover of The Wild Way Home, I knew I’d have to take it home with me and read it immediately, with or without my daughter.
“I’m in the Stone Age, aren’t I?”
When Charlie’s baby brother Dara is born with a problem in his heart, Charlie RUNS. Runs to the forest, with its sheltering leaves that shut out trouble and hurt and fear. But in the forest is a boy, lying in the river, breathing, though only just. And when Charlie goes for help, the forest has changed. Now it’s something vast and strange. Something ancient. Something WILD.
And Charlie is a long, long way from home.An unforgettable adventure about courage, hope, family and finding your way.
Being a bookish and TV-loving child of the ’80s, I’ve always harboured a soft spot for Stig of the Dump, another children’s story of a boy meeting a young Stone-Age companion in his local woods. Add to the Stig-like mix the story of a congenital heart condition told from a sibling’s perspective and I was in! (Predictable? Me?!)
There are a few spoilers in the following description and discussion of The Wild Way Home, but none so major that they would (I think) spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to read on or return to this post at a later date.
Charlie has always longed for a younger brother or sister, but when Dara arrives just a few hours before Charlie’s twelfth birthday, Charlie’s first impression of his brother is not at all what he had imagined or hoped for:
Maybe it sounds daft, but I’d thought I’d kind of recognise him, just see immediately that he’s my brother, but…he looks not like I expected at all. […]
He’s so small, so impossibly small, and his face is kind of squashed-looking and weirdly wrinkly, like his skin is too big for him. He’s really still as well; just lying there, asleep, his hands up next to his head, tiny fists curled tight. Only his chest moves, rising and falling very quickly as he breathes. It makes me nervous, his too-fast breath.
The honest truth is that Dara frightens me; everything I notice about him is kind of…not right. His skin is grey, not pink like it should be; his lips are in a tiny O shape like he’s whistling but I think they’re slightly blue. What scares me most though is that he has a very thin tube, like a straw from an apple-juice carton, going right round his head, into his nose.The Wild Way Home, by Sophie Kirtley, pp. 37-8
Charlie is sent out of the room, where he can’t hear the news, delivered to his parents by a solemn-faced doctor, that baby Dara needs life-saving open heart surgery. As Charlie waits anxiously in the hospital corridor:
..I think about Dara. I think about the folder the doctor was carrying and all the test results inside it.
From behind the door I hear the sudden sound of Mum wailing. It’s a horrible animal cry, high and sharp like Mum is shattering into a thousand pieces. It’s the sound of something breaking which can never be fixed.
Heart pounding, I turn and run.The Wild Way Home, by Sophie Kirtley, p.44
Charlie runs to the woods near his home, a space he knows like the back of his hand thanks to spending most days there playing with his friends, Lamont and Beaky. Hiding in a tree, Charlie overhears Lamont receiving a worried phone call from Charlie’s dad, as well as the news of Dara’s impending operation. Running away from his friends and the frightening information they possess, Charlie flees deeper into the woods, where he discovers a boy with a fresh head wound, lying unconscious in the river. When Charlie goes to seek help, he discovers the familiar woods have changed: he’s trapped in the Stone Age with spear wielding amnesiac, Harby.
Overcoming initial language barriers (suspend your disbelief here and imagine that Stone Age folks spoke a slightly gruntier version of present-day English) the boys gradually realise neither of them particularly wishes to kill the other and form a friendship of sorts: Harby helping Charlie avoid becoming dinner for the various Stone Age predators; Charlie helping Harby remember how to find the home and baby sister he lost when he injured his head.
Living with Harby in the Stone Age exposes Charlie to scary life-and-death situations that he’d never have to face in his own era, and forces him to come to terms with what it means to be mortal – living, dying and carrying on in the face of what is often an uncertain future. Seeing Harby (spoiler alert) reunited with his dad, watching them do their best to keep Harby’s newborn sister alive despite the death of the siblings’ mother, highlights to Charlie the importance of the family unit and the need to meet challenging situations together and, perhaps even more importantly, head-on.
Having learned this lesson, Charlie finds himself back in the present day, where his friends greet him with the news that his dad is waiting at home for him. In contrast to his attitude at the beginning of the book (“I don’t want to meet Mum’s eyes, in case I see a sadness there that I don’t want to be true.” p.36) Charlie now wants (and asks) to know the truth, however difficult, disappointing or imperfect that truth might be.
..I notice that, even though Dad’s joking around like normal, his eyes aren’t smiling. Coldness creeps into my blood once more.
‘Dad,’ I say softly. ‘You’ve told me the good news. But is there any…’ I swallow. ‘… any bad news?’
‘Oh, the bad news?’ Dad blinks, hesitating. ‘The bad news is that little brothers are really annoying.’ […]
I smile weakly. ‘Seriously, Dad, tell me the real bad news. I want to know.’
Dad looks at me long and hard, like he’s seeing me for the first time. He sighs.
‘It’s not going to be easy, Charlie. Dara’s still in intensive care and he’s going to be in hospital for a while. He may have problems with his heart his whole life. He’ll need more operations when he’s bigger. And Mum…’ Dad’s voice trails away.
[…] ‘Our lives are going to be a bit different, Charlie. Mum’s really shaken up. We all are.’ Dad’s talking to me properly. Like I’m a grown-up. Like we’re all in this together.
Maybe we’re all a little bit different, Dad,’ I say quietly. ‘And a bit the same. Things happen, bad things sometimes, and sometimes people get a bit broken, don’t they?’ Dad nods. ‘But we’ll look after each other, won’t we? That’s what we do.’The Wild Way Home, by Sophie Kirtley, pp. 238-241
Reading The Wild Way Home from the perspective of an adult with an interest in heart disease (not the book’s typical or intended audience, I’m sure!) I was pleasantly surprised by how this topic was handled: not too heavy-handed with high drama, but acknowledging that often there’s no easy happy ending when it comes to living with a lifelong heart condition. What Charlie learns is that sometimes life is really hard, scary and sad, but running away doesn’t change that, so he chooses to commit to his family unit and face the scary situation with his baby brother head on. If a book has to deliver a message (and, arguably, children’s books do) I’d say that’s a pretty good message to go for.
This month the blog has a focus on all things Friends & Family, tying in with the theme of the zine. I thought The Wild Way Home represented a supportive family unit in a child-friendly but not overly sanitised way, acknowledging that often there’s a lot of rough along with the smooth. How have your family responded to your heart condition? Do you face difficult conversations head on, or are you more likely to protect one another from the truth? If you have a sibling, is your relationship with them (in light of your heart condition) unique in some way? If you fancy sharing your thoughts on this or any other aspect of Friends & Family, perhaps you would consider contributing a haiku to this month’s zine? Full details available here.