Set during the big freeze of 1963, Wildoak tells the story of a girl called Maggie and a snow leopard called Rumpus. Maggie is passionate about the natural world; she has an affinity with living things but struggles with communication, feeling a failure at school and a disappointment to her father due to her stammer. Rumpus is one of a number of exotic pets on sale at Harrods department store. Bought as an unusual gift for a rich woman he is soon rejected, having wrecked her pristine flat. Both Maggie and Rumpus find themselves dispatched to Cornwall; Maggie to spend time with her grandfather and hopefully outgrow her speech impediment, Rumpus, who has never known life in the wild, abandoned in an ancient woodland Wildoak Forest (itself under threat). It isn’t long before their lives collide, and Maggie finds herself involved in a fight to protect Rumpus, facing disbelief, fear and growing danger.
Rich and multilayered with an exciting narrative, this is an engrossing novel with great characterisation; in particular the brave, resourceful young heroine and her caring inventive grandfather, Fred. Their relationship is sensitively described and central to the plot.
This is a story about making your voice heard on issues of importance to you, no matter how difficult. Readers will learn a little of what it is like to struggle with a speech impediment and how patience is required to allow individuals to communicate.
The richness of ancient woodland habitats and what might be lost when they are destroyed is a key theme. The story also highlights other issues, including the ethics of viewing wild animals as exotic pets; how fear of the unfamiliar can lead to violence and the kinds of rifts and tensions that can keep families apart.
An excellent debut novel, engaging, moving and thought provoking, highly recommended.