Even a life on the untamed plains of Africa can’t prepare Wilhelmina for the wilds of an English boarding school. Wilhelmina Silver’s world is golden. Living half-wild on an African farm with her horse, her monkey, and her best friend, every day is beautiful. But when her home is sold and Will is sent away to boarding school in England, the world becomes impossibly difficult. Lions and hyenas are nothing compared to packs of vicious schoolgirls. Where can a girl run to in London? And will she have the courage to survive?
"Don't you get out of the habit of bravery. Even if you think nobody's seeing... It's still so important. So important..."
~ Captain Browne
Wilhemina or "Will" is a young girl growing up on a farm in the wilds of Zimbabwe, Africa. Her family allows her to run free with the animals and her best friend Simon. That is, at least until her family's fortunes take a turn. Following a change in the farm's ownership, Will finds her world turned upside down when she's suddenly packed up and shipped off to a boarding school in England.
"It is real life that takes the real courage, little wildcat. School is very difficult. But that's because it takes toughness and patience. It's what life is, my love. Although life is very beautiful, it is also very difficult."
Will blinked, surprised. "That's what Captain Browne used to say. He used to say, ja, 'Life isn't all mangoes and milk tarts.' "
Wilhemina does her best to try to make new friends at school, but she is unfamiliar with English customs, so it doesn't take long for her to be targeted by bullies. I felt so bad for her, reading of her confusion at people's reactions to her, struggling to find friends to explain where she's going wrong. She gets called things like "savage" and "freak".
"Please answer me, Wilhemina. You'll try your very best to fit in, won't you, my dear?"
Will couldn't say she would fit in. Fitting was what lids did to jam jars.
Eventually her frustration leads to drastic behavior. A panic-induced decision to flee the situation sends her off on an adventure all over the city of London, until someone catches up with her and talks her through her feelings, leading her to see that running from problems doesn't make them go away, only delays you having to inevitably face them. She comes to embrace the mantra, "courage, chook", a phrase she often heard in Africa.
Every night Will felt she couldn't face another day. Every day she felt she couldn't face another night. Inexplicably, her body refused to die of a broken heart. It was unrelentingly bad...In lessons the teachers sighed and smiled and looked pitying... And everything she did was wrong.
"Sit up straight, please, Wilhemina!"
"Will, second warning! Feet off your chair!"
"Don't chew your ruler, please, Will. That's better. Show some respect for school property."
"We eat with our forks here, please, dear, or we don't eat at all. We're not savages, are we, now?"
Will's ball of rice had dropped from her fingers. She tried to cover it with her arm...Will turned away from the snortings and spittings of laughter as she pushed back her chair.
"My God! Did you smell her?" Will did smell, she knew -- of woodsmoke and Kezia and grass. Her boot connected with the girl's chair leg as she passed, but then her chest burned and flushed with shame and she latched her fingers into a knot so they couldn't strike out. Will only fought her equals.
I found this to be a unique story with some great themes perfect for middle-grade-age readers, such as trying to find your place in new environments and how to address bullying in a healthy, productive way. The writing is pretty heavy on descriptors though, which can make the flow of the story a little clunky at times. I could see younger readers struggling to make sense of some of the passages. As a whole, the story should have a pretty wide appeal because it incorporates unique environments that still have a familiarity to them, which is bound to keep most any reader engaged.