One thing every lonely kid has is some imaginary escape to another, more magical, usually safer world. (Maybe not-lonely kids have this, too, but I can’t speak to that.) Mine was a copse of trees choking the side of a road far away enough from anyone who cared that they were allowed to grow thick and wild, so that crawling through their branches to the sheltered center truly felt like going to another world. For Eleanor and her sister Mike in Fran Wilde’s Riverland, their haven was as close as under Eleanor’s bed.
They need a shelter, too; their always-short-tempered father is under more strain as a big and risky investment threatens to fall through, and during his rages, they know they can find safety between the mattress and floorboards and tell stories until the figurative storm passes. Theirs is a world of strict rules, and they bite their tongues and watch their step to make sure they follow every one of them. If they do, “house magic” will make every broken picture frame whole again, every dented wall smooth. But like Fight Club, the first rule is to not talk about the house magic. When Mike breaks that cardinal rule, Eleanor’s friend Pendra starts asking too many questions. Worse, Pendra’s mother, the school guidance counselor, also shows too much interest in the girls’ living situation. The attention is too much for the fragile balance of the household, and in a fit of cold rage the sisters’ father breaks an heirloom known as the witch ball, setting off a dangerous chain of events.
Because between the bed and the floor is also a door to a magical river, which has its own delicate balance to maintain—and breaking the witch ball upended things. The sisters aren’t sure who to trust or to what extent in Riverland any more than they do in the real world, and the rules in this new place are every bit as vital to follow as the ones they’re accustomed to but far less defined. Although they are able to escape, the river follows them home, making the tension there even worse. Eleanor finds herself frantically trying to patch cracks literal and figurative all day and night, but they increasingly spread beyond her reach. When the storm hits, it just might drown both worlds, and her and Mike with it.
Despite this being Wilde’s middle-grade debut, her prose and world-building are as sharp and rich as in her luscious Bone Universe trilogy, proving once again how far middle-grade books have come since I was actually 9 years old. This makes for an immersive reading experience, though not one you can speed through; every word is chosen far too carefully for that. This world that she has built beneath Eleanor’s bed is just as dangerous but more obviously so than, say, Narnia—it often reminded me of T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones or The Hollow Places. It’s far more kid-friendly than that, but Wilde doesn’t try to conceal the danger or the futility in finding allies to help Eleanor and Mike escape it. Nor does she spare complexity in her characters. It’s a level of trust in her readers, and in a knowledge of how quickly loyalties can shift when you’re a kid, that I appreciate.
It doesn’t take long to sometimes-heavy comparison between magic systems and abusive domestic situations. Riverland is a middle-grade novel and does act like it, with all the delicious trappings of portal worlds that 9-year-old me would have devoured. I think 9-year-old me also would have recognized Eleanor and Mike’s home suffered from some problems a little more intense than just parents fighting all the time, particularly as the story progresses (content warning, by the way, for domestic/child abuse), but probably would have been more fixated on the more magical elements. It’s adult me who can see the probable extent of the issues, as well as appreciate the genius comparison between the ridiculous adherence to rules necessary to survive in many magical lands and the minefield that is navigating an abusive family situation.
I think that gap of resonance between a kid reader and an adult (or even teen) straying into the middle-grade section for whatever reason is deliberate. “I knew the story was important. It is my hope that when it is needed most, it will be right there on the bookshelf for whoever needs it,” writes Wilde in her acknowledgements. I know I’ve certainly found a book that speaks to me on one level means something wildly different and prescient when I read it again later, and I think Riverland has plenty of layers to do that for the readers in its targeted age group as they grow and change and, perhaps, see the world a little more bleakly as they do so.
Which is why I loved so much the ending, in which (no spoilers here since this is an MG novel) the good guys win and the bad guys go away. But it’s not a clear victory, because that would be doing a disservice to Eleanor and Mike and whatever readers identify a little too closely with them. Sometimes things aren’t fixed in the way you expect. Sometimes they’re not fixed in the way you want. But the storm clouds will clear, and that’s the message Wilde leaves at the end of Riverland. And that message, I think, is relevant regardless of age.