Malcolm McNeill, The Beginning Woods, Pushkin/Murdoch Books, Oct 2016, 400pp., $16.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781782690900
Occasionally a book comes along that has the power to make you reflect on the status quo. The core values, beliefs and social ideologies that are seemingly set. It is all the better when this questioning is wrapped up in a compelling story with beautifully developed characters and an impossible world made possible with ingenious description. The Beginning Woods is one such book and I thoroughly enjoyed delving into its pages and having the ideas take root in my mind when the story was long finished.
This story follows Max, a boy who longs to find his ‘forever parents’ after having appeared seemingly out of nowhere on a bookshelf as a baby. His appearance sparks mysterious ‘vanishings’ across the globe leaving fear, panic and deep suspicion in their wake. A journey to the Beginning Woods ensues; where Max discovers much about himself, the world he thinks he knows and the world hidden from view except from those who know where to look.
Identity is a strong theme throughout this story; who we believe we are compared to who we actually are. The cold hard truth of this is thrust in Max’s face when confronted with dragon fire. Said to strip away all pretense and reveal ones true self, dragon fire is feared and avoided as only sincerely accepting your personal truth will allow you to live but “hardly anyone can accept the truth about themselves” (pg. 189). The reader revisits this idea over the course of the story as Max questions who his real parents are, where he really belongs and why his relationship with his adoptive parents went so wrong.
Max’s truth is deeply embedded in the mix of emotions he feels in relation to his adoptive parents, Alice and Forbes. Anger, rejection and loneliness make way for guilt, sadness and remorse as Max’s journey through the Beginning Woods unfolds. What better theme to address in a book targeting middle grade readers who are on the cusp of confronting the reality that parents are in fact people with faults whose lives didn’t start when their children were born. McNeill effectively clears up some of Max’s misconceptions about parents with the statement, “parents see only the hopes they have for their children, or the fears. You cannot expect such people to see you clearly” (pg. 364). This interesting idea allows Max freedom to look at his situation in a different light. As a parent, I felt deep sadness at the demise of Max’s relationship with Alice and Forbes and discomfort at seeing this from a child’s perspective.
Parallel to the themes of identity and human relationships is the juxtaposition of scientific thought to creative thinking. The idea that both can not coexist cohesively without severe consequences (‘The Vanishings’) sees global censorship of creative and artistic thought through book burnings and the destruction of all artistic expression. There are of course those who believe this to be the right way and those who fight against the injustice of censorship. This can clearly be linked to various times and places throughout modern and ancient history. In this story, it fuels Max’s anger and isolation and sends him to the Dark Man, a scientist with a deep connection to whimsy and storytelling. He is living proof that science and art can coexist as long as there is a balance and one does not overtake the other. The Dark Man very eloquently declares that “…all the energy of science is directed towards making things easier, towards eradicating the very thing that life comes from: struggle”, (pg. 429). This idea lends itself to critical discussion in the classroom and has links to modern and ancient history.
Overall, this is a story that can be enjoyed simply for those who want to become lost in a peculiarly magical world or pulled apart, theme-by-theme with a class of year 6 to year 8 students. My only suggestion would be to split the book into three separate stories, as opposed to the three parts that are currently included in the one read, for the younger readers who may be intimidated by the size of the book as a whole.
Reviewed by Katie Mineeff