Goodreads: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
Wilhelmina Silver loves living on a farm in Zimbabwe, riding her horse Shumba, playing with the monkeys, and disappearing into the bush for days at a time. But then she receives the news that little girls must not grow up half-wild, but instead go to boarding school in London. The girls in London do not understand Will, however, and they do not like what they do not understand. Alone and tormented, Will must learn how to turn the bravery that allows her to face down wild animals into the kind of bravery that can overcome spiteful classmates.
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms is one of those books that tears you apart. Katherine Rundell describes life in Zimbabwe with an intensity of love that transmits itself immediately to readers. Then, she methodically takes Africa, and what it means to live there, away. The resulting heartache is felt not only by Wilhelmina but also by those who have come to love her. And, sadly, though the ending speaks of hope, it seems a little too easy to be true.
The beginning of this book pulses with a life and and energy that seems complete unique, introducing readers to a world where Wilhelmina can ride like the wind, befriend wild animals, eat fresh fruit whenever she wants wherever she wants, and make friends immediately with everyone around her. The beauty and the intensity of this world are clearly too dazzling for the second half of the book to even hope to compare. As they follow Will through her days, readers already know that London will destroy the vibrant words that spin across the pages, just as they expect London to destroy something of Will’s soul.
All too soon Will’s world comes crumbling down around her ears and readers are taken with her to a world devoid of color and life. Grey, rain, conformity, ugliness. Neither Will nor the book thinks much of London. In this story, having combed hair and a uniform codes you immediately as unoriginal, unexceptional, and un-worth knowing. Will, obviously, will come to adjust her assessment of London a little, but the sense that wealth and cleanliness associate with evil always remains in the background. Because, in this story, the small glimpses of kindness are never enough.
The unexceptionalness of London is reflected somewhat in the plot, which loses some of its energy once Will moves to London. An escape from school, a trip to the zoo, an attempt to perform on the corner, and even a night spent in a tree are just the sort of things readers would except to happen to a girl like Will in a story like this. But in Africa, you never knew what was coming next. One almost wishes Will would find a way to escape back home, rather than submit to being broken down in boarding school.
“Broken down” is probably not the message this book wishes to convey, but I closed the pages feeling more strongly against the school than Will might have. Will returns from her runaway adventure to find that the girls who bullied her (assaulted her, even) are suddenly apologizing and trying to be her friends. They just feel so bad that tormenting her (with the apparent knowledge of the headmistress, who was sorry about it but did nothing) actually resulted in their victim trying to escape. Maybe Will believes it, but I don’t. I believe the girls feel guilty that their tormenting came out publicly, but that’s about it. And I am appalled that they are never punished for their actions.
Their sudden turnabout made the ending feel cheap, an easy way to make the readers and Will feel better. What was a beautiful, wondrous, and vibrant story about living to the fullest suddenly comes crumbling down. Going back to one’s tormentors is called courage. It’s really fortunate that the tormentors turn out to have a little spark of kindness in them that you just have to look for and all that. But it’s not realistic. The bullies I saw in school probably had goodness, too, but they never felt called upon to exhibit it and I don’t think any of their victims were obligated to keep hanging out with them in some sacrificial effort to try to dig that kindness out. I understand the adults had no clue what to do with Will, other than put her back in the school her guardians had chosen, but I think they could have made a better effort to intervene between her and the bullies.
The ending mars what is otherwise a beautiful and original work, one that sparkles with love and imagination and the glory of sunrises. Will’s world is one that invites readers in, to enjoy and to cherish and to lose. It is the kind that stays with you, after you have closed the last pages.