When their mother is hit and killed by a car (species: Ford Explorer), Liberty knows she has to take care of her little sister, Billie. It’s instinct, and Liberty relies on instinct. She also relies on her trusty notebook, in which she stores facts about animals and a few photographs taken by her long-absent photographer father. Who is coming to take the girls. Liberty has always longed to know her father, and living with her mom’s best friend, Julie, is just not the same as having mom. Even if Julie has a sweet tooth, just like Billie.
But dad isn’t exactly the father Liberty had imagined, and when things go bad he leaves the girls at a gas station somewhere in the middle of the desert.
One thing that immediately struck me about this book was the way Liberty uses facts and lists. She uses them to get a handle on things – to keep from panicking, to help herself plan, and to order her life, no matter how chaotic and, well, wild, life is at times. She also uses facts about animals combined with her own observations to interpret other people’s behaviour. She becomes especially good at identifying threats:
Jax exhibited standard predator behavior. If we just stayed still and quiet, he might leave us alone. (Chapter 29)
In uncertain situations, Liberty stacks up the knowns in lists. Between facts, lists, and instincts, Liberty is well-suited for survival. Each chapter is named after one of Liberty’s Survival Strategies and foreshadows the chapter; some titles are silly (“Dr Pepper Can Ruin Everything”) and some are serious (“Eat food”). The chapter titles reinforce Liberty’s narrative voice and her way of seeing the world.
The relationship between twelve year old Liberty and eight year old Billie is one of the strength of the story. As the elder, Liberty tends to tell Billie what to do, which is sometimes a source of comfort to her little sister. At other times this habit precipitates a melt-down. Billie is young for an eight year old; Liberty is more of a mother-figure than an equal ally with her sister, whom she protects at her own expense. The tie between them, however fraught at times, is mutual and close.
Most of the action takes place in the present as Liberty shepherds her sister away from dangerous adults and teenagers. The sections that reveal what led up to their abandonment emphasize Liberty’s disillusionment with her father and her consequent (and justified) inability to trust anyone other than Billie and Julie, even when she needs help. Liberty’s voice, consequently, changes subtly as her survival skills are honed and she necessarily comes to increasingly mistrust the adults around her. This is the background from which springs another of Liberty’s preoccupations: whether someone is faking it, or for real. Keenly aware of how often she has to fake it for Billie’s benefit, Liberty evaluates others’ words and body language to perceive whether they are real or fake. Nobody escapes her sharp eyes, most especially not adults who are supposedly there to help.
The cast of characters they meet on their adventure are unexpected and portrayed through Liberty’s perspective rather than through a more remote narrative voice. I liked that their allies were not typical heroes – one of them obviously isn’t used to children – and that their enemies, like most fake or condescending adults, were overtly foes. I also liked that Liberty’s dad isn’t let off the hook easily at the end. His behaviour has a reason, and while he isn’t cast into utmost villainy, his actions have serious consequences.
In the end, Liberty gets to make decisions about her life, which is what she needed to do.
Recommended for all those who like survival stories, travel stories, animal stories, stories about sisters, stories about (half-)orphans, and/or middle grade novels.