When Louis Nowra travels Into That Forest, he goes in deep, delving into wild terrain where humans have scarcely set foot, trekking through thickets of "gum trees reeking of peppermint" and over "forest floors smothered in hairy toadstools." He tunnels deep into night landscapes alive with the scents of exotic animals quolls and wombats, devils and wallabies and nestles down into the wild lair itself, nose pressed into warm and sweet-smelling fur.
Into the Woods this is not. Nowra's forest is animated not by fairy-tale magic but by the scientific wonder of a nature documentary. The fictional fantasy is set in mid-nineteenth century Tasmania, the Australian island state, where marsupial mammals dominated and there were almost no placental mammals until humans introduced them from outside. Into That Forest probes what seems to be the last wild corner of the last wild place, putting the reader on intimate terms with magnificent creatures who are among the last of their kind of earth. It's a spellbinding tour, and one you won't want to end.
The protagonist, Hannah, who narrates the story, loses her parents when their country picnic is swept away by a violent flash flood. Hannah and her friend Becky, who has the misfortune of coming along for the picnic, find themselves lost in the bush. A pair of Tasmanian tigers are their salvation - the tigers pluck the girls out of the flood and teach them to survive in the wild. In this way Hannah and Becky are transformed into those most fascinating of creatures - feral children (the focus of so much attention in literature and psychology, from the real-life "wolf children" like eighteenth-century Wild Peter to Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book). Hannah speaks in slightly fractured English because, as she says, "I lost it and had to learn it again." The girls occupy a powerful vantage point in a world that is on the brink of change, like embedded spies in the last days of the Garden of Eden. It's a place and time we look back on with longing and regret.
As children, Hannah and Becky have a fluid ability to adapt, and where their Tasmanian tiger mother leads, they follow. The tigers are the powerful center of the novel. Nowra's imagination climbs to great heights and gives these extinct marsupial predators substance and personality. (See 'Beyond the Book' for details about the Tasmanian tiger and its history). Early on, when human habits still come easily to Hannah, she names the tigers Corinna and Dave. They look on the girls as replacements for the pair of pups lost to one of the brutal bounty hunters who patrol the bush. Hannah figures out the tigers' language of yawns and yips and growls, and she quickly learns how to take comfort and food from the tigers as if they were her true parents. The bond she has with them seems plausible, and their wild lives, noble and ancient.
This is the kind of fantasy that young readers will find delicious. The Tasmanian tigers are the next step on the path of children's literature for readers who have been brought up on stories of talking animals and forest enchantment. How tantalizing to imagine that the wildness in our human nature can sharpen with practice that our eyesight can be honed into a hunter's night vision (as Hannah's is), and that we can learn to distinguish the scents of family and food.
There is brutality in the animal world too, of course hunting and danger and bloodshed. But most of the violence in Hannah's Tasmania comes from the human realm. The book is aimed at readers twelve and up, which seems right, although a sophisticated ten or eleven-year-old could handle it with some support. Cruelty to animals stirs up emotions that can be overwhelming (and not just for children). Into That Forest raises questions about loss in all its forms, from personal grief to the extinction of a species. But the novel also gives us an incredible chance to "crawl" into the burrow of a Tasmanian tiger, which opens the mind to the magnificence of animals in general. There is no better way to read Into That Forest than in the company of your own favorite dog or cat, who may suddenly seem more interesting than ever.
This review is from the October 16, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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