Owen Laukannen’s new book, The Wild is aimed at a young adult audience, but it’s certainly smart and sophisticated enough to appeal to a lot of adult readers as well.
The protagonist is a seventeen-year-old girl named Dawn who has suffered an emotional trauma and has made some very bad decisions in consequence. She can’t stand the man her mother recently married; she’s run away from home several times; she’s abusing drugs, and she’s moved in with a drug dealer who’s nearly old enough to be her father. And at that point, her mother and stepfather basically kidnap her and send her off to Out in the Wild, a “wilderness therapy program for troubled youth.”
Boot camp would be more like it. The “therapy” involved here centers on marching a group of troubled teenagers through the woods and up and down steep mountain trails, in cold, miserable weather, with no comforts at all—not even so much as a backpack and a tent—unless and until you can earn them.
Dawn is issued a tarp, some water, and a bare minimum of food and is sent off with several of her fellow campers on a forced march under the supervision of two “counselors,” whose sole approach to “therapy,” is to drive the kids to exhaustion and, apparently, to break down their resistance to authority.
Dawn’s fellow hikers turn out to be a mixed bag of kids, some of whom are emotionally disturbed while others who simply mean and violent and probably belong in prison rather than in a wilderness program. And it’s clear going in that trouble is going to follow.
Dawn is a very sympathetic protagonist, and Laukkanen moves the action along briskly with short, fast-paced chapters that keep the reader turning from one page to the next. By implication, Out in the Wild is a pretty suspect organization, and it’s hard to imagine how the program they offer would ever actually benefit anyone, save for the people who are making money by convincing parents to enroll their children in this program.
I’m a huge fan of Laukkanen’s earlier novels, which have been aimed at an adult audience, and while reading The Wild, I found myself thinking repeatedly about his book, The Stolen Ones, which is not only an excellent thriller but an eye-opening examination of the sex trade business. I wish he would have had the opportunity here to more thoroughly examine the entire “boot camps for kids” industry, but I imagine that probably wouldn’t have been appropriate in a book designed for younger readers.
Even as an adult, I was pulled along by the book’s propulsive pace; I can only imagine how quickly I would have been turning the pages had I read this at the age of fifteen or so. All in all, this is another excellent novel from Laukkanen who has conveniently solved the problem of what I will be getting my teenage nieces and nephews for their birthdays this year.