Thanks to Partners NetGalley and Crown Books for Young Readers for the digital ARC of Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on August 10, 2021.
Like his earlier, brilliant The Serpent King (like this book, a five-star read for me!), Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light begins with a strong sense of place, set firmly in the Appalachian town of Sawyer, Tennessee. Cash Pruitt is sixteen and, above all else, loves his Mamaw and Papaw, who raised him after his mother’s death, and his best friend Delaney Doyle, a genius. Cash and Delaney were first drawn together as the children of addicts, and now each offers a safe place for the other.
Delaney has gained some moderate fame in the scientific community after discovering a mold that kills bacteria and that shows great promise for the healthcare industry. When she’s offered a full ride to a private boarding school, she’s desperate to escape her circumstances, but she doesn’t want to do so alone. So, she convinces the school to also provide a full scholarship for Cash.
Cash is torn between his friendship and his loyalty to his grandparents, particularly Papaw, who is dying slowly of emphysema. Ultimately, though, they convince him to grab this opportunity, and so he and Delaney move to Connecticut and become students at Middleford Academy.
Those are the bare outlines of the plot, but they don’t reveal what makes this book special.
First, Zentner is an absolutely beautiful writer, and the book is filled with gorgeous prose as Cash works through who he is and who he wants to be and how to stay true both to himself and to those whom he loves.
Beyond the writing are the characters. The tenderness between Cash and Papaw is one of my favorite things—they love each other so much, and that love is beautiful and heartbreaking and present on every page of the novel. Delaney is brilliant and strong and also fragile, someone who has survived abuse and neglect and is now ready to step into her full potential, but not alone. Watching the way the all support and challenge each other is a lovely, moving reading experience.
Cash is so smart and so sensitive, but he’s also a teenager, one who has left his family and his hometown to step into another world filled with rich people who’ve lived lives he can hardly imagine. He’s not naive, just inexperienced, and so he’s fully aware of the risks that he’s taking while also hoping to make those he loves proud.
I can’t recommend In the Wild Light enough. Just be sure to have a box of tissues by your side. This book earns every tear.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.