“Because for every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You just gotta find it.”
“Every hurt, every sorrow, every scar has brought you here. Poetry lets us turn pain into fire by which to warm ourselves. Go build a fire.”
Nothing in Cash’s life has been easy in Sawyer–his small Appalchian town. His mother died because of her opioid addiction when Cash was a child. Now, as a teen, Cash is watching his Papaw deteriorate from emphysema while he and his Mamaw are powerless to help. Cash knows he’s lucky to have his grandparents at all, to be on the river he loves, to have his summer work mowing lawns, to have these small pieces of safety and stability.
Sometimes it feels like the one bright spot is his best friend, Delaney. But Cash has always known Delaney will eventually leave–that’s what happens when your best friend is a genius. When Delaney discovers a life-changing bacteria-eating mold in a cave, Cash knows she’s headed for better things. Without him. And even sooner than he expected when she receives a full scholarship to Middleford Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.
Except Delaney has plans of her own. None of which include leaving Cash behind. When Delaney tells Cash a scholarship is his for the taking he will have to choose between an unimaginable opportunity with the best friend he’s ever had and his love for his grandparents and the only place he’s ever called home.
As Cash grapples with everything he has to let go, he’ll remember everything worth holding onto and learn new ways to dream bigger in In the Wild Light (2021) by Jeff Zentner.
Zentner’s latest novel can be read as a standalone but is set in the same world as all of his other novels. The story here is most closely connected to Goodbye Days with direct references to those characters. Cash and Delaney are white, secondary characters include Cash’s new friend Alex who is Korean-American (and also on scholarship) and Delaney’s Brazilian roommate Vi who is wealthy leading to thoughtful commentary on income diversity throughout the novel. Cash’s poetry-teacher-turned-mentor is queer and she and her wife also play key roles in the plot.
Cash’s first person narration is eloquently introspective as he describes the river and nature he dearly loves but less self-aware when it comes to identifying his own wants and, as his world expands at Middleford Academy, understanding what he needs to continue growing.
Cash is keenly aware of his past traumas and how they have shaped him and his loved ones in a small town where poverty is high and many have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic as he describes them, “Here we are, survivors of quiet wars.” At the same time, Cash and especially his Papaw and Mamaw are free with their affection, their praise, and their unconditional love. In a world where toxic masculinity is still so dangerous it is refreshing and powerful to see a teenaged boy given space to cry and grieve and feel while also seeing the same things in his grandfather.
While Delaney is eager to start fresh, Cash is hesitant to embrace this new chapter and let himself imagine a world beyond his quiet life with his grandparents. Even as he makes new friends, joins crew, and discovers an unexpected passion for poetry, he’s still waiting for the ground to fall out from under him the way it always does–a fear that will resonate with readers who have struggled with unpredictability and chaos in their own lives. On first glance, I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. When Cash says “I have nothing in my life that isn’t falling apart,” I felt it in my bones.
In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. In the Wild Light is a resonant story about healing; the perfect book to see you through a rough season.
Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons