Into The End of the Wild, a book by Nicole Helget

The End of the Wild
By Nicole Helget

As a Michigan native (and resident, still) I found this book intriguing. What better than a book set in my native state?

The End of the Wild is a sweet little story about fracking. No, not really. It’s about a little girl named Fern coming to terms with her mother’s death. Well, not really. It’s about what it takes to win the science fair (otherwise known as STEM fair). Except really it’s about a poor girl in a small Michigan town who has to decide between her rich grandpa and poor stepdad. Or maybe it’s about nature, preserving the woods, or friendship, or bullying, or dogs. Huh.

I’d say the strongest threads are: fracking/conservation, grief/healing, and poverty. With a science fair and dogs and a grumpy old neighbor and Muslim bff and foster kid for good measure. Though at times each of these takes a backseat to the others. Which I suppose is the case for all novels but here the other threads disappeared so completely that they then felt less convincing. I found myself wishing the novel were more focused and some of the "extra" were stripped away.

While I enjoyed the STEM fair aspect, found the treatment of fracking handled well in all its complexity, and "enjoyed" (probably not the right word) the depiction of rural poverty, I found those things and the CPS/guardianship issue were more than enough to maintain interest. But every few chapters something "touching" had to happen, something involving the dead mother. The "dead mother," which is the trope of all tropes, did not seem necessary or entirely authentic and distracted from the other issues listed above, which then interrupted the flow and lessened emotional engagement. That said, the story is sweet and the characters and setting well drawn. A thoughtful look at a complicated issue, with recipes!

Now, as a native Michigander and rural-dweller myself, and having grown up in an area (albeit urban) steeped in poverty, I will say those things could have used an, ahem, fact-checker. A few minor things: one of the boys touches poison ivy and immediately collapses in agony. Um, sorry folks, poison ivy doesn't work that way. Unless (possibly) someone is very, very severely allergic to it. Which this boy obviously couldn't be since he's been running through the woods through the whole story with no problem. Anyone who lives in a rural environment knows poison ivy rash takes hours, if not weeks to appear, and is actually harder to get than just brushing against or touching with one finger an intact leaf (leaf must be bruised to release its oils). It's not a bee sting, people!

Second: no individual in poverty in Michigan would put their cans in a recycle bin alongside their glass and plastics. I would say every family (especially those who actually value money, i.e., those who don't have a lot of it) has a container just for soda/beer cans/bottles. First, if recycling is a paid service (which it is where I live), the chances the family would spend money on it — slim to zero. More importantly, however, CANS ARE MONEY! Fern would be collecting her dad's cans, the neighbor's cans, the cans on the street, cans tossed in the trash at school. Each one's worth ten cents, which adds up a lot faster than a basket of mushrooms.

Overall I didn't "FEEL" Michigan, certainly not rural poor Michigan when reading this book. And since that was one of the main draws, well, let's just say I was a little disappointed to not see more of myself/my home. It could have been set anywhere where there's fracking, so why Michigan?

This was actually an instructive lesson for me. While I've yet to set a book outside of Michigan, there are so many factors to consider, research questions to answer to make a book fully authentic. I need to examine how I research, what sources. Google is the writer's best friend, but it can't be her only friend.