Normally, I cast around a bit when introducing these book reviews, looking for a snappy opener or a catchy illustration. This time I’m just going to say it plain: It’s hard to imagine a better book for preteen boys than N.D. Wilson’s Leepike Ridge.
All the rowdy, romping joys of boyhood find their place in protagonist Tom Hammond, who lives in a house chained to the pinnacle of a mountain peak. As you might imagine, appliance delivery men hate Tom’s home; real estate situated atop a crag makes it a lightning rod for, well, lightning, and the little house has seen its fair share of short-circuited appliances, including (most recently) a refrigerator. Tom’s always glad to see them, though. Their deliveries add a new element to his usual diversions of splashing in a nearby valley’s stream while collecting leeches. Appliances come in boxes, and what boy doesn’t love an empty box? It can serve as a spaceship, a time machine, or (in Tom’s case) a raft to ride down a river. The eleven-year-old has plenty of troubles from which he wants to float away. His dad died three years ago in a mysterious plane crash, his mother has just started dating again, and her ersatz suitor is a nebbish, nerdy fourth-grade teacher Jeffrey Veatch. But Tom’s trip on the river will lead to a new sort of woe, one involving underwater grottos, artifacts of a lost civilization, unscrupulous treasure hunters, and a bedraggled hermit who claims to know what really happened to Tom’s father.
Think of Leepike Ridge as a combination of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and those 1960s-era Hardy Boys pulp mysteries—only it’s a lot more perilous. N.D. Wilson understands that boys need danger in their fiction, and he has refused to de-fang this adventure. Tom’s watery journey through subterranean rapids leaves him battered, bruised, and bleeding, and the first thing he finds after washing up on a cavern shingle? A corpse. Later on, he learns that his father perished not in a plane, but in a … well, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say that the way he died meant that not quite all of his earthly tent made its way onto an aircraft as part of a dubious cover-up. Also, the final confrontation with the aforementioned treasure hunters involves deadly gunplay. All this conflict may make discerning parents pause, but rest assured that Wilson avoids prurient detail, keeping all the excitement while omitting age-inappropriate details.
What’s more, Leepike Ridge shows that Wilson has a way with language. His spare diction often turns poetic. Consider the book’s opening:
In the history of the world there have been lots of onces and lots of times, and every time has had a once upon it. Most people will tell you that the once upon a time happened in a land far, far away, but it really depends on where you are. The once upon a time may have been just outside your back door. It may have been beneath your very feet. It might not have been in a land at all but deep in the sea’s belly or bobbing around on its back.
In this case it was in a land, for the most part.
Sometimes the writing becomes humorous. We learn that Jeffrey, the ineffectual, hated boyfriend, “drove a little green car the color of dry toothpaste.” And despite the book being written for mainstream audiences rather than the unfortunately named “faith market,” Wilson occasionally steers the proceedings in subtly spiritual directions. When Tom wants to know why few would accept a hermit’s theory that the caves were part of an ancient Asiatic civilization, the hermit wryly explains how higher education works: “Because they weren’t us. Evolution has produced us more recently, and that makes us the smartest ever. After all, we invented the parking lot.”
I’ve put out a whole lot of pixels here to say something very simple: Leepike Ridge is great. Go get it, especially if you have a boy. But if you don’t, get it anyway. Worthwhile books know no glass ceilings.