Thursday, April 4, 2019

Going on an adventure: K.A. Thomsen's The Hidden Valley

Title: The Hidden Valley
Author: K. A. Thomsen
Genre: Middle-Grade Adventure
Pages: 154 

What Goodreads has to say:

Stacey and her best friend, country-wise Alexis, set out on a horse-packing trip through the Chilcotin mountains only to lose her beloved mare overnight. The clues lead them through a mysterious tunnel, which opens into a hidden valley full of prehistoric plants and animals. The mystery deepens when they are taken captive by a group of indigenous people that appear to be living a paleolithic lifestyle that has remained unchanged for centuries.


What I have to say:

“Always there has been an adventure just around the corner, and the world is still full of corners!”

Roy Chapman Andrews (the real-life Indiana Jones and my favorite paleontologist) said that, and his words evoke what lies at the heart of this book—and many others. 
The idea of there being another world just around the corner, or just on the other side of a rock wall, or just under our feet, or just across the sea, is such an enticing one that countless stories have been written about it. 

In my childhood, there were hidden worlds around every corner: behind the garden or inside the cluster of tall fir trees in my backyard, on the other side of the sewer drain at the neighborhood park, in the forest at the top of the hill. Fairies, dragons, cave trolls—who knew what could be lurking there?

Later in life, I knew I wouldn’t find trolls in the drain pipe, but I still loved looking for hidden worlds: exploring behind waterfalls, scoping out tidal pools at the beach, scouring the hillside for fossils that would prove there was another world just out of reach—hidden in another layer of time.

The Hidden Valley reawakened that young explorer, and filled me with an appetite for adventuring.

K. A. Thomsen has a talent for natural description. Using only words, she evokes a rich setting complete with sights, sounds, and smells. She’s equally adept at describing landscapes and animals.

In fact, the descriptions of nature and animals are far more in-depth than descriptions of human characters, and I’m not going to comment on whether that’s a negative or a positive thing, because I honestly can’t decide.

In a story like this, anyway, the setting and animals seem to be far more important than the characters themselves, and these rich, detailed descriptions make it very easy for the reader to put herself in the characters’ places. We can see, hear, and smell the landscape around them – around us.

This book doesn’t have a lot of conflict, though there are a couple intense scenes with a large prehistoric cat. Then again, considering the length and intended audience, maybe the story has enough conflict for what it is. 

There are emotional moments, there’s some very light romance (the main romance is probably between Stacey and her horse, TBH), and there’s enough danger and mystery to make the story compelling.

Author appreciation time:

In middle grade books, there’s a tendency to write characters who are supposed to be 11 or 12 but are really 16, 18, 27, or not human.

The teen and pre-teen characters in The Hidden Valley really feel like teens and pre-teens. Their interactions come off as authentic, their mood swings and emotions feel pubescent, and the dialogue isn’t stilted or unrealistic.

Stacey’s friendship with Alex feels very believable, and it’s sweet. They’re like sisters, and like sisters, they argue and don’t always see eye to eye, but they always have each other’s backs.

Stacey’s relationship with her horse, Appleby, is also very sweet. As I’ve never owned a horse, I can only guess at the deep bond that must exist between a horse and its rider, but Stacey’s bond with Appleby feels right.

That being said, I had a few unfulfilled expectations.

Here’s an example: when the kids hear that Donny has to hunt a mammoth to earn his right to enter the tribe and marry Kayla, I thought: “Oh awesome! We’re going to see a mammoth hunt!”

We did not.

Well, I asked, “Why even bring that up if we’re not going to see it happen?” Then I realized that this story is all about imagination—it prompts us to imagine what worlds could be hidden just beyond our doorstep. It prompts us to conjure up rich scenes that we assumed were lost forever, and tells us that they might not be lost after all. 

Ah crap, I’m waxing too poetic. I hate it when that happens.

The story in your head is almost always going to be better than real life. Tell me there’s going to be a mammoth hunt, and a shiver of anticipation runs up my spine. Describe the mammoth hunt for me in high detail, and I suspect I’ll probably end up bored, disappointed, or both. 

The mammoth hunt in my head will always be better. Besides, if you leave it out of the story, the mammoth hunt is always to come—but tell me about it, and it’s over.

I’m realizing a thing I do is to notice a “flaw” in a story, then do a 360 and accept it as a strength.

On that note, I was expecting Stacey to decide to breed her horse Appleby before the story ended. At the beginning of the book, she’s wrestling with this decision. She loves Appleby and knows her foals would be beautiful, but she’s worried about the toll giving birth might take on her horse. Plus, she has no experience foaling.

There was a hot stallion in the valley that Appleby could have had some sweet colts with. I kind of expected it to go that away—especially since Stacey finally got some foaling experience in the valley. But the story ended, and this question was still unresolved.

So then I exercised my special critic superpower and thought, “But that’s true-to-life. She’s 11.” Obviously Stacey is not going to have her whole life figured out at age 11. 

That’s really the whole nature of being a pre-teen on the edge of puberty: you feel like you’re in flux, and everything is up in the air. So it’s kind of perfect this way. I now love it.

The characters exist outside of the story, and their lives will continue after we stop reading.

Will Stacey decide to breed Appleby? Will Donny capture a mammoth and marry Kayla? Will the children ever visit the valley again? Will they ever tell anyone else about it? And how will this discovery—even if they keep it secret—change their lives?

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

(Besides this, I hear there’s a sequel in the works.)


Until tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. I mean, the review is OK, but I think I deserve at least a 4. Just saying. I know it is hard to get into the headspace of a 10-12 year old, and for this reason I was watching a lot of tween shows like Austin and Ally, iCarly and Jessie as research. The tension is firm from page 1 to the end, so I'm not sure if that just didn't read as conflict to you because it's not immediate physical conflict or direct argument/fighting between characters (but there is always something causing you to turn the page). People these days are so hardened because of the violence common in "entertainment" in our culture. I view this as a negative. That being said, a lot of the conflict is psychological and ideological. The characters are very well developed, and maybe because they've been with me for at least 20 years, I can see them and don't feel the need to emblazon their image on the minds of the readers as much as show who they are through their actions.
    I would definitely have an ideological problem writing a mammoth hunt ( I was forced to read "the killing of an elephant" in an English 9 assignment and was traumatized by it) partially because it's illegal to kill endangered species which elephants are today, and partially because pachyderms are one of the most intelligent and emotive animals on the planet. They have complex family structures and communicate with each other via sounds, most of which humans can not hear. They use tools and grieve their dead. I don't want people thinking that it's okay to kill elephants(by association), or really have people enjoying the suffering of anything. There are many, many other ways to entertain oneself and I disagree with popular culture on this. I don't think that the hunting or killing of something is entertainment. At all. Ever.
    That being said, the second book continues what was started in the first, including an Appleby pregnancy and subsequent revisit to The Hidden Valley. It is set about 11 months after the first, and it reads a little older. I think most adults would enjoy it more, but we're not seriously judging a Jr. Fiction book on how adults enjoy it, are we? Because I know that the books that I enjoyed at that age, that expanded my mind and were at the peak of my interest - if I try to go back and read them now, I am generally disappointed (with the exception of CS Lewis, of course.) I think that it's probably a bit premature to judge a writer's ability based on a junior fiction story, especially if you haven't read any of their other writing. My opinion is that if an adult can read a book (or watch a show for that matter) aimed at tweens without losing their mind and actually enjoy it even a little, then maybe it's a really good story or show for tweens.