Nancy Springer, Wild Boy: A Tale of Rowan Hood (Philomel Books, 2004)

Wild Boy is the newest installment in Nancy Springer's series of stories about Rowan Hood, daughter of Robin Hood. Born of Robin and a half-aelfe mother, Rowan is a healer and, like her father, an outlaw who lives in Sherwood Forest with her own outlaw band.

This story centers on Rook, a silent, sullen orphan who likens himself in his own mind to a wolf or stag — free, wild, needing no friends or companions of any kind. Although a member of Rowan's band, he sleeps alone in a cave on the edge of Sherwood, and walks the forest clad only in a breechclout and wrap. Never smiling, he is a walking embodiment of anger and loneliness: his father, a gentle, harmless pigherd who lived on the edge of the Forest, was killed in one of the Sherriff of Nottingham's man traps, large steel traps set to catch the unwary outlaw or peasant who invaded the king's hunting grounds. Rook is filled with anger and hatred for the Sherriff, who refused Rook's pleas to save his father. And then, one night while Rook is fishing for supper, he witnesses the capture of a lone rider — a knight, by the look of his warhorse and armor — by Robin's band. When the knight's helmet falls off during his capture, Rook and the others realize that it is just a boy. When one of the outlaws recognizes the lad as the Sherriff's son, Rook wants them to kill him, but Robin refuses, and takes him captive. Later that night, as Rowan's band is having their supper of grilled trout, Robin comes by to inform them that the captive has escaped. It is Rook who, on the way to his cave, discovers the boy caught by one of the man traps along the path. Rook realizes he cannot kill the boy, as much as he hates his father, nor can he leave him to die as his father had. Summoning the outlaw bands, he helps them to rescue Tod, the Sherriff's son. Tod, as it turns out, was trying to escape his father, and Rook is forced to reassess his feelings toward the boy.

In previous volumes, Springer has introduced the other members of Rowan's band, starting with Rowan herself. In each volume, she has focused on one aspect of growing up, starting with Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest in which Rowan must learn to deal with independence, followed by Lionclaw, which focuses on Lionel, a great brute of a boy who doesn't want to fight but learns his own brand of courage, and Outlaw Princess of Sherwood Forest, the story of the runaway princess Ettarde learning to deal with her parents and the responsibilities of her station. Many of the characters are unusual — Rowan is the daughter of a woodwife, the half-aelfen Celandine; Lionel is a huge boy, seven feet tall; and Rook himself is strange, withdrawn and solemn. The situations they meet are often unpleasant — there is cruelty and violence, both in memory and in events unfolding — but they learn from it.

Although recommended for ages 8 and up, this book is really more suitable for early teens — and this is an adventure story that will appeal to just about any teenager. The basic setting, an independent group of young people (although with adults close by, just in case) who live on their own in the forest — complete with secluded hidey-holes — is one that most young people dream about. Springer deftly sketches this ideal, and brings the reader into the story as she exposes some of the downsides of life, describing a boy's learning to become part of a group as part of becoming himself, setting it all against a life of freedom and danger. Springer's treatment of character is concise and complete, and I'm not so far past my youth that I can't remember the loneliness and sense of not-belonging, and the attendant defiance, that seems to be a basic feature of adolescence: Rook is someone you're rooting for, and he carries you along through his transformation from a boy who learns that he is not a wolf or a stag, solitary and self-sufficient, but a young man with friends about whom he cares very deeply.

[Robert Tilendis]