The genius of “Wilderness” is how it turns that saying upside down and looks at adolescence from the point of view of the young. It’s not the youngster here who goes away but a mom who goes missing; it’s not the adolescent who is out of sorts, but the adult. Doyle does this two ways, in twin tales that he parallels throughout the book: one the story of Tom and Johnny Griffin, whose mother is lost in the snowy wilderness of Lapland and needs to be rescued by her enterprising sons; and the other the story of Gráinne, the boys’ teenage half sister, whose own mother abandoned her when she was young and who comes back to Dublin to beg forgiveness from her daughter. Ah, but these are satisfying fantasies!
Young Adult Novel by Roddy Doyle
If the problems of adolescence were not so familiar, one might be alarmed by the behavioral eruptions of the typical teenager and seek medical help — wondering, say, about possible lead poisoning. Here is one of Roddy Doyle’s apt descriptions of the symptoms in his new young adult novel, “Wilderness”: “She was a teenager and suddenly, it seemed, she was unhappy and unfriendly, and silent and loud at the same time. She spoke to no one, but slammed the doors. She turned her music up loud, talked loudly to her friends on her mobile phone, telling them how stupid her family was and how she hated them all.” As my Irish mother used to say about puberty and growing up, “When children get hair under the arms, they go away for a long time, and it’s a long time before they come back.”
Living between her isolating earphones, Gráinne is the sullen, door-slamming teenager described above. Having heard that the mother who abandoned her is now living in New York, Gráinne fantasizes about a swank Manhattan mom who shares glasses of wine with her. Alas, the woman who returns to Dublin is more ordinary; and when her mother asks for forgiveness, Gráinne is surprised that instead of fulfillment and resolution, she feels resentment and hurt. In long nights of cautious and pained conversation that follow, a change takes place in Gráinne that also hints at one antidote to adolescence’s poisoning: she turns from an obsession with herself to consider her mother’s feelings and needs, seeing her for the first time as a person, an outward shift of attention that had never been possible before.
While Gráinne is going through her doldrums, her stepmother, Sandra, needs a break from the slamming doors and hurled dishes and takes Tom and Johnny, her preteen sons, on a December holiday, a dog-mushing vacation near the Arctic Circle.
The only kids in the tour group, the boys like speeding through the snow on sleds and how their gruff guide, Kalle, treats them like grown-ups, having them do chores with the huskies. Everything is “brilliant” until their mother fails to appear one evening at the rendezvous point. Then without permission, in a snowstorm that jeopardizes everyone, they steal away and take two dog sleds to find her. As it turns out, in Doyle’s novel, the voice crying in the wilderness is a mom’s.
In the background of all of this is the paterfamilias, Frank Griffin, who could be a stand-in for the author himself. This father is wise and sympathetic (giving just the right advice to Gráinne, for example), as if he were Sidney Poitier with his charges in “To Sir, With Love” and entirely on their side. (Doyle was a schoolteacher in Dublin from 1979 until 1993.)
That would be the same Roddy Doyle who made a splash with his gritty north Dublin rock ’n’ roll novel “The Commitments,” as well as other books about working-class Irish families, who has written memorable historical fiction (“A Star Called Henry”) and also won the Booker Prize (for “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”). In recent years, Doyle has experimented with children’s books (“The Giggler Treatment,” “Rover Saves Christmas” and “The Meanwhile Adventures”), but the results have been thin on everything but cleverness, as if he was trying too hard to be Roald Dahl. Here, more in the manner of Jack London, Doyle has found his voice.
“Wilderness” is that rare young adult novel that can speak to every member of the family: hardpressed moms, perceptive fathers, belligerent girls, and risk-taking boys. Still, it seems primarily a boy’s book, reminding me how I loved stories about survival that began with a small plane crashing in the middle of nowhere, and how I waited eagerly for the arrival of the magazine “Boys’ Life.” Like the best-selling “Dangerous Book for Boys,” “Wilderness” could rekindle interest in this true-grit legacy.
WILDERNESS. By Roddy Doyle. 211 pp. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. $16.99. (Ages 12 and up)
Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (September 16, 2007).