Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
Not since "Night of the Hunter" can I remember a more charismatically evil "preacher" captivating a community and placing innocent children in peril. Two people know the danger in the preacher - the sheriff who has no legal evidence to act, and Adelaide, an elderly woman of the church who has appointed herself protector of the children in the congregation. These two are moral anchors of the community, in their own ways keepng the peace. But then the curiosity of two brothers sets events in motion that gain momentum and become explosive in a matter of only days.
Wiley Cash has perfectly captured the language of the region, with a finely tuned ear for genuine dialogue and prose. The characters are complexly gritty, tender, damaged and innocent, Told by three first-person voices, we get an inside look at life in the mountain country of North Carolina, where communities are close knit and closed in, and ruled by tobacco and fundamentalist religion. The three voices - Adelaide, Sheriff Barefield, and Jess Hall, a 10 year old boy terrified at being thrust center stage in the machinations of an adult world he can't understand, are all voiced impeccably by a trio of accomplished narrators. I generally avoid multiple-reader books, but seeing that Lorna Raver was included convinced me to give it a try. (Her performance of "Fried Green Tomatoes" was exquisite.) I was not disappointed.
To me, the book that comes closest in mood and tone to this one is "The Orchardist". I suspect that readers who enjoyed that book will enjoy this one, and those who did not, will not enjoy it. In both books, the sense of time and the land is beautifully evoked through the eloquently descriptive writing. Successfully conveying the space, the cold and the isolation of the vast landscape allows understanding of the fear, awe and ultimately commitment to the land that the main characters, Mabel and Jack, experience. For them, the sorrow of an earlier loss has left them lonely and distanced from each other. But the mysterious appearance of a child who they need as much as she needs them, opens up their hearts and teaches them how to live again, another theme similar to "The Orchardist". The mystery of the girl - is she real or not - adds a touch of magic for the reader as it does for Mabel and Jack. That said, I would advise readers hoping that this is a magical fairy tale to think twice before downloading. As in "The Orchardist", the story is told with little sentimentality. The life and death struggle of surviving in the Alaskan wilderness through trapping and hunting, freezing and starving, makes it clear that this is an unforgiving life for the unprepared. Detailed discussions of animals being hunted are included and are not for those tender hearted towards the animals.
Some readers are dissatisfied with the ending, but I was ok with it. I don't see any other way it could have ended, and found it consistent with what came before. The supporting characters are somewhat shallowly written, but overall I did not find it a major distraction.
There are some books that are so wonderfully written and perfectly narrated that they are trophies to be cherished. This is one of those trophies. Too many books start well but seem to have no idea how to follow through to a satisfying conclusion. Many contemporary authors could learn from Adams how to create characters that a reader can believe in and commit to. Few human characters that I have read in recent books can compare in depth and dimension to the rabbits of Watership Down. The creation of a culture and language for the rabbits and other creatures rivals Tolkien’s masterpieces. Trying to choose a favorite is impossible – Hazel is of course the hero, but my heart also belongs to Big Wig, Fiver and Pipkin for their courage, to Blueberry, Blackberry and Dandelion for their lightness of spirit, and to Kehar the gull just for being himself. I loved the fables reminiscent of the Brer Rabbit tales that offered deeper insight into the culture, and the life lessons gently taught through the various adventures in creating the new warren. This may not be a cute bunny story for preschoolers, but school agers and older should be able to understand and handle the dangers of animal enemies and rivalries. Certainly television and movies show greater levels of violence than is found here.
Though I had thoroughly enjoyed the book in print, never did I have such rich voices in my head as those provided by Ralph Cosham’s superb reading. The toughness of Big Wig and General Woundwort, the brave innocence of Fiver and Pipkin, and the off-beat uniqueness of Kehar are perfectly voiced. Those who have not read it in a long time may be delighted to rediscover an old favorite. I give this wonderful classic my highest recommendation.