Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

When Alabama author Gin Phillips' new novel Fierce Kingdom started popping up in all my favorite book publications, I took notice. I'd read her first novel The Well and the Mine and then found Come in and Cover Me an especially good reading experience. In that book, she has an archeologist, who made her reputation on a pottery find, called to the location where pieces evidently made by the same Native American artisan were found--far from the first. She manages to work in a little touch of supernatural without losing the reader.

I realized, too, that both books stood alone as works of literature without being so obviously the work of one writer.

This newest novel Fierce Kingdom carves out its own place as well. The story, set in a zoo in early fall, introduces Joan, a mother having an outing with her young son Lincoln. As closing time nears and they head toward the exit, she hears loud popping noises, then sees what she eventually recognizes as bodies--and shooters. She heads deeper in to zoo to hide and await the police.

What follows is a suspenseful story, introducing other secondary character--including two teenage shooters and other zoo visitors trying to escape them.  At the heart of the story is Joan's relationship with her son as she draws from all her resources, mental and physical to keep her son safe in the most harrowing of experiences.  She faces some difficult ethical decisions along the way as well.

Phillips' novel sets itself apart from other "airplane books" as the reader is privy to Joan's interior thoughts, the writing moving from straightforward to desperate. Small details, even the items in her purse, gain significance as the plot develops.

At times I was reminded of Ron Koertge's novel-in-verse The Brimstone Journals, told in a multitude of voices at a high school, including a misfit like Ronny, the shooter that readers get to know best. Having spent much of my teaching career in the high school classroom, I recognize the vulnerability of some young people who are hungry to belong. One nice touch in this book, in fact, involves one of the potential victims, a retired teacher whose memory and people skills are called into play.

Through the course of the book, I found myself as present in that zoo as if I had been there. The physical location of the action was so artistically drawn that I experienced the smells, the textures, the chill, even the pain of injuries. I think I'll be more circumspect the next time I visit the zoo.


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