He hadn’t started going in Peppa’s room then but I knew he would soon because he said he would and Peppa was ten and that was when he started on me. (2)These bracing lines from the opening pages of journalist Mick Kitson’s debut novel Sal make devastatingly clear the disturbing home life faced by the book’s thirteen year-old narrator, Sal, and her sister, Peppa. These same pages, however, also introduce Sal as clear-eyed and steely-willed beyond her years, determined to protect her sister at truly any cost.
As the story begins, the two huddle together in a shelter they have built for themselves in the wilderness; it is one of their first nights on their own in the woods, and a cold October wind chills them to the bone. But Sal has come prepared; after making the decision in the spring to flee, she willingly endured further months of abuse in order to give herself time to carefully and thoroughly organize an escape. Learning survival skills from many hours of YouTube videos, and creatively obtaining a variety of the survival tools shown, she has meticulously prepared herself, creating an elaborate plan to be able to stay together with her sister, and give them the best possible chance to survive.
Leaving their home behind, Sal has led her sister up into the deep woods of a mountainous reserve in the Scottish highlands. And, benefitting from both her detailed preparation as well as some timely good fortune, the girls come to make a go of it, relishing the peaceful beauty of their new home as they try to put the lingering horror of their old one behind them.
And yet. Can even Sal’s best laid plans and stubborn determination carry them through the daunting realities of surviving in the woods?
Kitson uses flashbacks by Sal to reveal the disturbing home life the girls have left behind, as well as the details of their escape. Through these flashbacks, Sal attempts to process what she has experienced, and the implications of the actions she has taken to protect herself and her sister. But however dark and at times overwhelming these memories, the newfound feeling of control over their lives that she and Peppa experience in the woods creates a powerful elixir. Despite the profound uncertainties of the natural world, the juxtaposition of the peace they experience in the woods to the premeditated violence and chaotic uncertainty of their abandoned home provides a convincing foundation for believing that two adolescents can be willing and able to put up with the challenges they encounter in the life they construct for themselves in the mountains.
Sal’s voice and tone also help in this regard. Her every thought and action reflects the translation of her role as the sole responsible caregiver and protector of her sister from the dangers they had faced at home to the preferable but no less threating world of their mountain home. Sal remains constantly on guard, almost robotic in her focus, with seemingly every event she faces triggering memories of a YouTube video she learned from, or an answer to a question she had purposefully asked a teacher, during her months of preparation.
Certainly it is no coincidence that Kitson titled the book after its narrator: at its heart the novel tells the story of how a thirteen year old --- abused and with no one to turn to or trust for support --- becomes a kind of machine in order to survive, single-mindedly focused on protecting her sister from her fate. Sal meticulously regulates her emotions and reactions, to the point of deliberately allowing herself on occasion a specific amount of time to worry about her situation before getting on with the business at hand. Robbed of her childhood, but not her humanity, Sal’s love for her sister Peppa burns strong and bright, enabling her to overcome seemingly any obstacle.
How appropriate, then, that the jacket designer for the hardcover edition elected to draw Sal’s name in large, glowing, capital letters, set like a leviathan astride a mountain wilderness scene.
Other reviews / information:
Having set the book in Scotland, Kitson includes Scottish expressions that were generally unfamiliar to me, some of them a struggle to understand even from context --- who knew that ‘greeting’ can be used to mean ‘crying’? Having a smartphone nearby to use to look-up the definitions for these words when they come up can be handy.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf