Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: *** (3 stars)
Writing: **** (3 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Age range recommendation: 12 -18
I read an ARC of Beware The Wild and some details may change before publication!
I seriously dig swamp magic. I mucked around writing half a novel about swamp faeries one Spring, and it was good fun. The bayous down South hold me in dreadful fascination, even though I’ve never really explored that part of the country and would probably quit after an hour because of the insects. Swamps make a great setting for mysterious or threatening otherworldly activity, with weird creatures and secrets hidden down below the slime. Hence my excitement for this new YA novel set in Louisiana, where ghostly girls come out of the bayou and local legends mix with memories which may or may not be trustworthy. Beware The Wild is Natalie C. Parker’s first book, and I’m excited to see it in bookstores because there can never be too many creepy swamp stories. This is a good one.
Sterling is distraught that her older brother, Phineas, will be leaving their tiny Louisiana town for college soon. She’s always looked to him for protection, but now he’s just going to disappear. That is, she’s sad about him leaving until he really disappears into the spooky swamp that haunts the borders of town – the swamp that’s home to all sorts of unhappy legends, where no one dares tread and which no one will admit has something sinister at its heart. Once Phin crosses the border, Sterling becomes terrified that her brother won’t ever return in one piece. And things only get weirder when a girl comes out of the swamp and takes his place, quite literally replacing Phineas in everyone else’s memories and even in physical evidence. No one believes that Sterling had a brother; not her parents, not her friends, no one except for Heath. Because Heath lost his best friend to the swamp, too, and has been carrying Nathan’s memory on his own ever sense. Even while false memories of a sisterhood with this mysterious Lenora May threaten to take over Sterling’s desperation to save her brother, she and Heath hang on to what they know is true and try to face the twisted magic which makes the swamp so dangerous.
Wow, so, the plot of Beware The Wild really hits the ground running. Phin has disappeared by page three, and the swamp demands our attention from the very first sentence. The girl who comes out of the swamp – Lenora May – establishes herself as a mysteriously compelling tangle in Sterling’s suddenly messed-up life before we even see inside of the high school. And that’s only chapter one! The family drama, friendship dynamics, and past romantic tensions come to light gradually, as Sterling grapples with her memories. She thinks she’ll have to rescue Phin on her own at first, which would obviously be difficult, and the swamp’s background gets clearer as she struggles to come up with a plan. Sterling’s own history solidifies gradually, too. Her voice is well-defined, and the town’s spooky ambiance is believable, so I was able to accept each revelation as it came. The magical solutions which Sterling and Heath use to save their friends were dishearteningly simple in their execution, but the magical logic behind their attempts was sound enough to keep me reading.
The legends connected to the swamp took on different cadences depending upon who told them. Mrs. Clary at the general store is a bit mystical, so her superstitions had me convinced that something awful lives beyond the boundaries. Candy – Sterling’s best friend – is a hardcore skeptic who just happens to love telling the local scary stories. A good mix of very American characters from all perspectives – on matters magical as well as sociable – made for a realistic, modern variety of of attitudes towards whatever danger lies just beyond rational belief.
As Sterling and Heath soon come to understand, the line between memory and belief can get fuzzy when no one else can remember the truth.
For the most part, the characters were developed nicely. None of them will become favorites of 2014 for me, but they were fun and passionate; likable products of such a cool setting. I thought that the villainous figure could have been developed much further, though with so much going on and quite a few twists I guess there wasn’t much space for even more exposition.
The writing was fairly strong, especially for a debut. First-person present-tense narratives usually bug me, but the pacing and narrative worked well together, here. I loved how certain details were allowed to slip through the cracks for a little while, until the reader could suddenly realize that something (or someone) was missing at the same time that Sterling notices. The suspense took on the logic of dreams at those moments, in a consistent way that created a uniquely alarming effect. Rather than being a jumpy or gory horror novel, Beware The Wild sustains a vaguely sinister tension up through its conclusion, with a few light breaks for awkward dates and emotionally fraught snack attacks.
On the subject of snacks: anyone struggling with an eating disorder might want to give Beware The Wild a miss for now, since Sterling has many a Bad Food Thought. Her decisions and motives are clearly influenced by starvation in several instances. Other characters definitely act as the voice of reason against Sterling’s worrying behavior, but, as in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe (which I enjoyed but also deals with an ED) the main character’s inner narrative is very prevalent. Therefore, whenever Sterling throws out a meal or lies about what she’s eaten, her rationalizations become part of the story. All that sound advice from Candy, Phin, Heath, and other healthy characters comes after a strong emotional aversion to feeding herself properly. For most readers, this will just be an interesting point of character development. And, rest assured, Sterling does change her attitude towards food as the book goes on. Unfortunately, for those of us who have also looked for reasons not to eat – especially those of us who thought not eating could make us stronger, somehow – the element of starvation here could easily be a trigger. So proceed with caution, please!
I recommend Beware The Wild to fans of American ghost stories and superstition junkies. People who like intriguingly claustrophobic settings for their paranormal drama. Teenagers with complicated feelings about their families, and anyone who daydreams about how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone. (I, for one, have spent many an hour wondering how best to achieve immortality through other peoples’ stories. Even if it’s just, “Don’t do that or you’ll end up like Sarah.” A cautionary legend, if you will. The impact of forgetting in this book hit my dreamy side hard.)
Beware The Wild has an atmosphere and themes in common with Beautiful Creatures and (Don’t You) Forget About Me, even though I liked Beware The Wild much better than either of those. The rich setting and bizarre twists were comparable, but Parker managed to make her characters and magic more accessible, even when we have to get to know them on the fly. It wasn’t quite so stunning as Franny Billingsley’s Chime, but honestly I can’t imagine anything replacing Chime in my affections. This book has found a place on the high end of my bog-magic list, nonetheless.
The magic in this particular swamp is unique in its function, but hauntingly familiar in the way that it seeps into the sort of fears we try to ignore: that of forgetting, but also of loving too hard, and giving up hope. A good swamp story is fertile ground for those worries, playing them back to us on a seemingly natural stage, where something unnatural lurks under every root and rock. Natalie C. Parker’s threatening but lovely swamp has drudged up a ghost story, and a couple of love stories, which will be a welcome addition to the Southern Gothic YA genre.