Set in Vermont this is an atmospheric and moving tale of grief, loss and ultimately hope. Sisters Jules and Sylvie do everything together, even sharing a best friend Sam who sits between them on the bus to school every day. Their mother had died 7 years previously and Jules is a little jealous that Sylvie, the older sibling, can remember more about her. They often play a guessing game of what happens to you after you die – maybe you turn into wind, maybe you turn into stars.
Jules loves collecting and classifying rocks and both children make wish rocks where they write their dearest wishes on to stones and fling them into the river. Sam throws wish stones too – for his older brother Elk to come home safe from Afghanistan and to see a catamount – a rare puma-like big cat. Elk does come back from Afghanistan, a shadow of his former self, but his best friend Zeke does not.
Sylvie’s passion is running – she wants to be the fastest but Jules doesn’t know why Sylvie constantly wants to run faster. The river adjoining their property is known as The Slip and the girls have been told by their father never to go there as it is dangerous and disappears underground before reappearing further downstream. But the sisters have been going there secretly for years to deposit their wish stones. One snowy morning the sisters run out to make a snow family by the path to the Slip but Sylvie races off despite Jules’s pleas not to go. Jules adds a tiny snow fox to the family group and waits for her sister but grows increasingly worried as she does not appear. When the school bus leaves without them Jules searches for her sister; finding a tree root and a huge gash by the river and she realises with horror that Sylvie must have tripped and slid into the river and drowned. She is devastated – they all are.
Running parallel to this is the story of a fox cub, Senna born at the time of Sylvie’s death. She is kennan – a spirit animal born to complete something unfinished. Senna somehow knows she is closely linked to Jules. She is a feisty cub full of life and curiosity in her physical surroundings and love for her fox family. The story weaves between fox and girl as they become more closely entwined. The fox leads Jules to a secret grotto in the woods where Jules finds a cache of Sylvie’s unsent wish stones and discovers the reason why Sylvie felt the need to run ever faster. The story ends in a powerful climax when the fox saves Jules’s life.
This novel is beautifully written with an almost poetic intensity. There is a real feel for the landscape and the animals that inhabit it. The fox family are warm, solid and believable even when the story strays into the mystical. Although it is a poignant and heart-breaking read it is the kindness and quiet strength of family and friends that shines through. This is a book for the more reflective child perhaps but it is heartfelt and hugely rewarding.