After the death of his grandmother, thirteen-year-old Kit’s family moves back to their hometown. Kit quickly becomes friends with a group of kids who play a game called Death. After Kit “dies” in the game, he begins to see the ghosts of children who died in a mining accident centuries ago.
I’m conflicted about this book. My adult self loves it, but I’m doubtful that my middlegrade self would have felt the same way.
Kit’s story is beautifully written. The writing is poetic and creates an eerie atmosphere that pulled me into the story and held me there. The book is set in a rural English mining town, which adds to the eeriness.
The characters are realistic and flawed. I especially like John Askew, the inventor of the Death game. He’s a creepy character, but I felt so bad for him when I learned his backstory. Deep down, he’s really just a confused and lonely kid. I love his complexity, and I love that Kit tries so hard to understand him. John is a bully, but the author doesn’t oversimplify or stereotype him. Over the course of the story, Kit discovers why John is a bully. I haven’t seen many YA/middlegrade books that do such a good job of humanizing the “bad guys.”
As an adult, I can see the brilliance of this book, but I don’t think I would have seen it as a thirteen-year-old. I have a feeling that my thirteen-year-old self would have been bored and baffled by this story. The plot is slow-paced and often seems directionless. The book is multilayered, rich in symbolism, and requires the reader to actually think about what’s happening. The author doesn’t spell anything out for you. If you want to know the meaning of the story, you have to connect the dots for yourself. I don’t think thirteen-year-old me would have been up to the challenge.
On the surface Kit’s Wilderness is a magical realism book with some weird horror elements. If you dig a little deeper, it’s a beautiful story about stories. The dead can live on through the stories we tell each other, and stories can be used to understand people who are very different from us. This is a book about empathy, kindness, and understanding, which is awesome. The world needs more of those things.
Kit’s Wilderness is probably challenging for young people to read, but it’s the type of story that will haunt you long after you finish it.