“If you want to live, you got to run, boy, run,” 12-year-old Sam Castine tells himself. He’s trapped deep in the Maine wilderness after trying to retrieve his forgotten cell phone during a frenzied, smoke-filled evacuation of his summer camp. With wildfires raging, Sam gets left behind in the confusion. He quickly realizes, “Use your brain or die, that’s the rule.”
Thankfully, this lively, engaging narrator has plenty of smarts, allowing him to carefully but quickly try to find his way to safety, especially with the help of an abandoned old Jeep that takes on a life of its own as it zips along a maze of narrow, rutty logging roads.
Action lovers will relish every word of Wildfire, the latest by Newbery Honor winner Rodman Philbrick, whose previous books include Freak the Mighty and Zane and the Hurricane. This new novel chronicles six nonstop days of danger that include not only fire and smoke but also encounters with a bear, moose, lightning and a pair of marauding arsonists on motorbikes.
Early in his misadventure, Sam finds a friend in 14-year-old Delphy Pappas, a camper left behind at a nearby girls’ camp. Their believable, deepening friendship is the icing on the cake of this page turner. Delphy is a likable, powerful young woman coming into her own, but she’s self-conscious of her size and height, especially at “Camp Fatness,” as she calls it.
Sam was sent to summer camp instead of foster care by a savvy, caring social worker while his loving but opioid-addicted mother tries to reclaim her life in rehab (a refreshing change of pace from many such characterizations). Meanwhile, Sam recalls the many camping and survival skills learned from his late father, killed in a tanker truck explosion in Afghanistan. He also contemplates the wise words of his social worker, reminding himself, “Mrs. Labrie says that’s what life is all about, learning how to deal with stuff you can't control.”
With Wildfire―reminiscent of Hatchet and the real-life saga Lost on a Mountain in Maine―Philbrick transforms a raging inferno into an impressively plotted escape story full of heart and soul.