In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (432 pages)
In the Wild Light, Two Friends Struggle Together to Find Light in the Darkness
After his mother died, Cash moved in with Mamaw and Papaw. Shortly after, he met Delaney at a support group for kids of parents who struggle with addiction. He’s pretty smitten with her and tries to look out for both of them in their mostly white, economically depressed Appalachian town. When Delaney, an unassuming science whiz, makes an incredible discovery in the caves just outside town, she earns a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. Since Cash was with her when she made her discovery, she decides that she’ll only attend if they offer him a spot too. While he’s hesitant to leave his grandparents, especially for something that he doesn’t feel he fully earned, he accepts.
When Cash and Delaney arrive at Middleford Academy, they are immediately overwhelmed by the pristine campus, the bustle, and the diversity of their new classmates who come from around the world. Cash quickly befriends Alex, a Korean American student from a working-class background who is also there on scholarship. Along with Delaney and her roommate from Brazil, the four begin to form the kinds of bonds they’ve been yearning for their entire lives.
Zentner’s Prowess in Prose is Unmatched
If you’ve read any of Zentner’s other works, you’ll be familiar, but still in awe of, his exquisite prose and the detail with which he brings his characters to life. Cash and Delaney are both fully-formed when we meet them; it’s as if we just dropped right into their lives. And their struggles are not trivial. They’re both dealing with stressors that are unfortunately commonplace for many teens and those stressors are exacerbated by their socioeconomic status. What some novels might treat as a saving grace, moving to a new setting with all of their material worries taken care of doesn’t actually make them feel better. Through the mentorship of a trusted teacher and the growing pains of his relationship with Delaney, we follow Cash on his painful and poignant journey of self-discovery.
The Bottom Line: 5/5 Brookie Stars
After reading The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner became an instant purchase for me. So when I saw In the Wild Light on my upcoming release calendar, I pre-ordered it without even reading the synopsis. Because I work with teenagers, I know how emotionally complex they are, and also how much they often have going on in their home lives. What Zentner is able to do with language is relatively unmatched, and not only in the young adult genre. Cash is so well developed that you’ll not only feel like you know him, but your heart will break for him as he moves through this exceedingly trying phase of his life while simultaneously trying to find out who he is outside of that strife and grief. If you’re looking for more titles by Zentner (which I bet you will be!), check out my review of The Serpent King here as well as a brief review of Rayne and Delihah’s Midnite Matinee here as part of my top picks from 2019.
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Rachel Gomes is a 30-something high school English teacher who lives with her high school sweetheart-turned-husband and their son. Rachel is a voracious reader who loves to learn and has her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. She’s happiest listening to podcasts and talking to friends about the latest news in nerd culture.
Favourite book: Don’t make me choose between A Song of Ice and Fire and Harry Potter
Favourite brunch spot: The Farmer’s Table