A tornado, family drama and eco-terrorism in Abby Geni’s new thriller “The Wildlands” suck you in from the novel’s devastating opening until you are deposited in an entirely different mental place at the end. Geni is a masterful storyteller who teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. Her widely lauded “The Lightkeepers” displayed her calm artistry; in “The Wildlands” she plays with atmosphere and psychology as if they are touchable.
Oklahoma’s severe weather is as much a character in this story as the nine-year-old protagonist. Deprived of her mother at birth and her father in the prologue, Cora is a keen and quiet observer of the Bible-belted, trailer-park poverty in which her teenage sisters and brother are left to raise her and themselves. They are poster children for tragedy. Cora bonds with her charismatic brother Tucker as he spins Peter Pan-like origin stories so she can learn who she is—until he disappears.
Three years after the tornado that orphaned them, a local cosmetics factory is bombed, its lab animals released. Tucker reappears needing Cora’s help to heal from the blast and copilot a crusade to right the wrongs done to animals and the poor by corporate America. She thinks they’re going on an adventure together, but he takes advantage of her innocence, upping the eco-terrorist ante at each stop. Tucker cuts Cora’s hair and reinvents her as his brother Corey, which her malleable heart accepts like a naive cult follower. Tucker blurs reality and fantasy, rescue and crime, opening each reframed, justifying chapter in their tale of two heroes with “Once upon a time,” and ending with, “This is all true, you know, this really happened.”
Geni captures the frightening inner struggle of a child caught up in dangers beyond her control when Corey recalls, “The full measure of my wrongdoing was a tangle I could not unravel.” Near the end, as I marveled at the incredulity of Tucker’s piece de resistance, I found myself reveling in Geni’s remarkable talent for leading me there.
By Abby Geni
Counterpoint Press, 288 pages, $26
Abby Geni’s book launch party is at 7pm, September 4 at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 North Clark (773)769-9299. Geni also reads at 7pm, September 20 at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln (773)293-2665.
Kate Burns is a writer, musician and voiceover talent living in Chicago. Her voice haunted the elevator in her gynecologist’s building until by chance the practice moved. She taught preschool Spanish for three years and, like a bartender, grew to rely on the security of having a guitar, or a bar, between herself and the patrons. It’s only a matter of time before she succumbs to her family’s lobbying for a dog. You may see her walking this dog on Chicago’s wintry sidewalks with a leash in one mittened hand and a tissue in the other. She enjoys knitting rectangles in large font while binge-watching TV. She rues the fact that she hasn’t been to a movie in several adjacent seasons, but give her a book and she’s golden. She likes gardening. Plants are quiet. Her one and only child challenges her daily like the Mack truck of karma. Her favorite animals are seahorses and hummingbirds and her favorite food is popcorn. She decided on these as a teenager and hasn’t revised her opinions.