Clarkin’s (Cold Open, 2012) YA novel sees three kids working to protect a special tree, which is connected to a magical realm.
Ten-year-old Gabby Wilson lives in Marshall Township with her mother, Amanda; her older sister, Natalie; and her grandfather Tom. On the way home from school one day, she, Natalie, and their young neighbor, Ian Jennings, cut through a park. Next to the park is mean, old Patrick Skinner’s property, guarded by three vicious dogs. Also nearby is a grove of trees—also owned by Skinner—which is the neighborhood’s last scrap of wilderness. Gabby, after hearing a “really nice sound,” enters the woods to investigate; it seems to be the sound of children laughing. One tree’s bark has the raised initials “EM” on it, and when the kids touch them, a rumbling begins. Gabby and company suddenly find themselves rolling down a unfamiliar hillside, and they land in a field of lush, green grass under a bright, blue sky. A boy named Nelson greets them and reveals the existence of a self-contained community where young people exercise their creativity and live sustainably. When Gabby asks where they are, Nelson says, “This place is for you three smart young folks to figure out.” In this ecologically minded YA puzzler, Clarkin writes primarily for younger audiences, but his adult characters often give the narrative a dark streak. For example, when Skinner threatens to remove the trees from his property, Amanda initially wants to avoid battling the “pervert”—a reference that goes unexplained. It’s heartening, however, when Tom, a former state trooper, later encourages Amanda to stand by Gabby. The secret place comes across as a utopia, where life is an ongoing science fair and people focus on bettering the world through agriculture, solar power, and more efficient transportation; its exact location, though, is never explicitly stated. The ending, which involves some frightening gunplay, provides an emotional plot turn that makes a sequel welcome.
An environmental message lies at the heart of this often gripping tale.