Bone Jack by Sara Crowe is so different from the fantasy that I regularly read that it took me a few chapters to fall into the rhythm of her dark, mysterious story. Once I was able to place myself in the barren, dry countryside of a stark English summer where echoes of the Green Man are still heard, I slipped into the pace and suspense, history and action of the story comfortably.
Ash Tyler life hasn't been a cake walk, although it hasn't been as hard as that of his once best friend, Mark Cullen. Ash's dad has finally returned from serving in the military but has locked himself in his room and seems to be fighting invisible demons. Ash doesn't even think he can tell him his good news that, just like his dad some 20 years before, he has been chosen as Stag Boy for the annual, ancient Thornditch tradition of the Stag Chase. For the Stag Chase, boys recreate the centuries old tradition in which the fastest boy in the village ran a circuit, the Hound Boys in hot pursuit. In ancient times, it was said, the Stag Boy was offered up as a sacrifice to the land when the balance of Nature seemed to be off, but Ash doesn't know that until it's too late.
Mark Cullen and his younger sister Callie have had a brutally hard life. Mark's dad, once best friends with Ash's dad and Hound Boy to his dad's Stag Boy, has committed suicide after the death of his wife and then the forced destruction of all the sheep on his farm due to hoof and mouth disease. Mark and Callie are sent to live with their ailing grandfather, but when he is sent to hospital, Mark, who knows how to live off the land thanks to his dad and his years exploring the countryside with Ash when they were friends, goes feral, to use Callie's words.
Upset by his father's PTSD and his guilt over letting his friendship with Mark fall apart, Ash is already shaken when he begins seeing things. First, it is a pack of airy Hound Boys rushing past him on the trail when he is out for his daily run. Next, he encounters Mark's camp in the wilds, surrounded by the carcasses of crows he has killed and sheep skulls he has exhumed from his father's derelict farm. Mark tells Ash that, as a Hound Boy, he is going to sacrifice Ash during the race so that the land can return to its fertile state and his dad can return to the world of the living. Ash thinks Mark is crazy, but when to research the history of the Stag Race he realizes he could be wrong.
Except for occasional appearances from Ash's mother and Callie, Bone Jack is all about the boys. And who is Bone Jack? Ash discovers that he has also been called the Green Man, an ancient symbol of nature. In Bone Jack, Ash eventually realizes he has an ally, if a distant and seemingly detached one. Ash doesn't back down from Mark's assertion that he will sacrifice Ash or any Stag Boy to bring back his father. He also spends time, unwittingly, in the hut of Bone Jack, learning, obliquely, about the balance of humans and nature. Ultimately, Ash grows as a character through his trials with the spirits of the Stag Chase and Bone Jack himself. He finally feels his guilt over how he didn't try hard enough to stay friends with Mark after his father committed suicide and, in turn, he makes important, compassionate and selfless decisions to save him in the face of danger.
Sara Crow does such a magnificent job describing the rugged, arid geography of Thornditch and the surrounding realms in Bone Jack that I thought the book was set in Australia or Southern California almost half the way through. The necessary absence of adults in a work of fantasy makes perfect sense here, making it easier to follow Ash on his singular journey. Bone Jack, with its animal carcasses and hunting theme is definitely a book that will appeal to boys, as will the lovely length, for a work of fantasy, that comes in under 300 pages!
Source: Review Copy