Willo lives in the remote, unpopulated mountains of a new ice age world. After his family is taken away by strangers, Willo decides to confront their nearest neighbor to find out what happened. As he crosses the mountain in the harsh winter weather, he comes across a girl, Mary, on the brink of starvation. The two do some surviving and discover some harsh realities about the world they live in.
First of all, this entire book is written in Willo’s voice and Willo’s voice is dialect. I usually do not mind dialect (I barely even noticed it in The Knife of Never Letting Go, for example), but Willo’s voice got to be a little too much at times. I think it needed another character’s voice or some narration to break up all the awful subject-verb disagreements and verb tense/number issues. But I suppose the dialect helps give you a better idea of who Willo is. He is not well-educated and has spent most of his life focused on survival, not on the finer points of grammar and language. (Though, he does know how to read and probably should have a bit of a better idea of how to speak properly based on the fact his father and stepmother hammer home the reading skills.)
As Willo is focused on survival, he does a lot of hunting and develops a deep relationship with nature. He wears a dog-skin cape and hears the voice of the dog in his head, directing him on matters of survival in the elements. He has a cave filled with the skulls of small animals with the eyes filled in with stones. Here he worships the animal spirits, giving thanks and gaining strength to hunt again. This whole thing was a little weird. I think it was supposed to be based on Native American (or other indigenous) spiritual traditions, which seems appropriate on the one hand because some indigenous peoples have thrived in the frigid conditions of the Arctic Circle. At the same time, though, I thought it was a bit affected… like Willo was just “playing Indian.”* That made me a little uncomfortable.
There isn’t much to the plot of this book, Willo and Mary escape the danger of the mountain only to enter the danger of the city where Willo promptly abandons Mary. Willo decides to work to find his family and ends up in the middle of a civil war of sorts. There are a group of people hoping to escape the UK on a boat and these are rebels that the powers that be are trying to thwart. It isn’t very clearly explained, but that is probably because Willo is a bit dim when it comes to the politics around him.
Even though Willo was an oddball and a bit frustrating at times (like when he abandoned Mary after spending so much time and effort trying to protect her), I guess I sort of liked him. At the very least, I was rooting for him to make it and to get it through his thick skull that caring for other people wasn’t a bad thing.
This was a very dreary world where survival was difficult in the wilderness and oppressive in the city. There was a brief incidence of cannibalism, a child addicted to opium, and wild, bloodthirsty dogs. At the same time, though, I thought this was one of the better points of the book. You certainly got a feeling for what the world was like, even if why it was that way was a bit vague.
I’m not sure that this would be everyone’s post-apocalyptic cup of tea. I think that it was certainly good and that those who like a darker world and interesting writing would like this. If the idea of a dog spirit talking to a boy bothers you, then you probably want to steer clear of it. It was a decent, slightly weird little book.
*Incidentally this reminded me of the excellent book, Playing Indian, by Phil Deloria. Deloria claims that Americans have appropriated Indian imagery and identities to suit their own cultural needs, particularly in times of great transition. Remember how at the original Boston Tea Party the revolutionaries dressed up like Indians? This was not only to obscure their identities, but to firmly identify their claims to American independence with a group that (at the time) symbolized American independence. I am not sure Willo fits into this tradition, given that he is British, but maybe there is something more there.