The newest book by Evanston Township High School graduate and current Evanston resident Abby Geni takes readers to The Wildlands – “special place … a home for strays and runaways. All the refugees of this war,” Tucker McCloud tells his little sister, whom he has refashioned as a brother-in-crime.
The novel takes us from The Wildlands of Tucker’s memory to the grim life of orphans in a trailer park, to a multi-state eco-crime spree and back to Oklahoma, where the storm had upended the McClouds’ placid life on the farm.
Early on, Darlene McCloud had a pretty good life – pretty good, that is, for a young woman on a farm near small-town Oklahoma helping care for her three younger siblings. Her mother had died in childbirth, and she and her father anchored the family. Her future was pretty much set, as she had been accepted to Oklahoma University to study nursing and was just a summer away from matriculation.
The F-5 tornado that hit the town of Mercy that May demolished the McCloud home and farm, killed the father and left the four McCloud orphans “the saddest family in Mercy.” At least, that is what the press called the family after Darlene did the unthinkable, at least by Mercy standards: she spoke to some reporters about the disaster that left her family homeless and without much to live on.
Darlene gave up college, and, with money from charity, she managed to settle the family in No. 43 in a trailer park on the edge of Mercy. Cora, who was 6 when the tornado hit, recalled, “Darlene liked to say that we lived in a permanent mobile home, despite the obvious oxymoron. She thought it sounded classier than trailer.”
With a job in the local grocery store, Darlene kept food on the table and her sisters in school, but Tucker soon disappeared from life in No. 43.
The tornado, he said, had opened his eyes to the destruction that humans were wreaking on the planet. The storm – which some called the “finger of God” – had not only destroyed much of Mercy. It had also unearthed the clandestine pollution that the local plant, Jolly Cosmetics, had been dumping for years near the town.
After he left home, Tucker linked up with sustainability advocates then left each group for a more radical one. His actions escalated from setting caged animals free to bombing the Jolly Cosmetics factory and then to persuading Cora, then 9, to join him.
Tucker initiated – or brainwashed – Cora into his way of thinking, and the two went on an eco-crime spree from Oklahoma to California. Cora, whom Tucker has dressed as a boy and named Corey, told Darlene in one of their rare phone conversations, “The tornado was a gift. … It opened his eyes. It showed him reality. … Tucker and me – we see it now.”
With a brother on the run and wanted for eco-terrorism by the FBI and several local police departments, a quasi-kidnapped sister, another sister navigating high school as a stellar but impoverished soccer player, and a budding romance with a local police officer, Darlene remembers a favorite saying of her father’s: “And then something else will happen.”
Something else, something else and something else did happen.
As with her 2016 novel, “The Lightkeepers,” Abby Geni is unafraid to describe the hard details of humans or nature. In “The Wildlands,” the dirty, malnourished brother and sister sleep in an abandoned tornado shelter (their family’s), in open fields, in a truck bed or on the seats of a stolen car, and eventually in a mausoleum. Two-day-old food is still edible, and baths a rarity. Even as Tucker’s vision becomes wild and scary – and the reader hopes for a quick rescue of Cora but knows that is unlikely with this author – Ms. Geni tells their story without pity or condescension.
The aftermath, or epilogue, is narrated by a much older Cora, whose hair is now “embroidered with gray.” She says, “I try to move through the world without damage, leaving behind no carbon footprint, casting no shadow and creating no ripples, as light and immediate as an animal.”
This book is well worth the wild journey.