A beautiful, life-affirming novel about bravery, hope and the wildness that lives in us all.
Katherine Rundell was born in 1987 and grew up in London, Southern Africa and Brussels. She graduated with a double first in English from St Catherine's College, Oxford, worked for a brief stint on the South Bank Show and in 2008 was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Her first book was born of her love of Zimbabwe and her own, slightly feral, childhood there. She is currently writing a second novel alongside academic work on the letters of John Donne.
Wilhelmina Silver is an unusual heroine. She is an outsider of regular society, someone who does not play by the rules as we know them. She lives outdoors and finds food in compost heaps to eat, her speech is basic and reminds us instantly of cavemen and animals. Yet she is a joyous heroine, and one we immediately fall for. Her manner may not be beautiful, but her soul glows. When we first meet Wilhelmina, she is a savage but a happy one – a barefooted mongrel of a girl who enjoys a life blessed with nature and without rules. The few times she breaks rules such as trespassing, people tend to smile and appreciate her charm and value her freedom. She is more or less oblivious to the way she is different from others. She does not have a formal education, but she is clever at looking after herself on the land. The love of her father goes a long way to making her life blissful. This all falls apart when her father dies and she is taken into the care of Cynthia Browne, who decides she ought to be with other girls, in a boarding school in England. Can The Girl Savage, who has survived in the wilderness, adjust and survive in the confines of an English boarding school?
While Wilhelmina remains a heroine very different from most girls we meet, her struggle is an eternal one – the feeling of loss, the inability to fit in, the feeling of displacement and a world that has disappeared. The feeling that nobody understands and she is unable to explain herself to anyone. These themes are worth discussing in the classroom as they are ones that many people deal with in their lives. There is a scene that demonstrates this lack of understanding perfectly, when the lock on Will’s trunk is forced by Cynthia in order to place her clothes in it. Will’s rage is palpable, and Cynthia takes this as her inability to control herself instead of attempting to understand Will’s feelings. First Cynthia never thought to ask Will for the key to her own trunk, then she dismisses her anger at the intrusion. Poor Will is the victim of a lack of understanding from the start of the novel.
There are bright lights of characters – friends who help Will along the way – sympathetic friends such as Daniel and Simon, and adults such as her father, Captain Browne, Daniel’s mother and Miss Blake. These characters provide a sweetness to the story that make us happy for Will, but it is really Will’s story we’re interested in and her character that is developed and explored here.
Another theme that is brought up in the story is the school environment and that of the free outdoors Will was used to. Will points out that at school what mattered was who was prettiest and that being clever was “dangerous”. A good discussion point might be how students think the school environment really works and what matters for success. The poignant issue of school bullying was brought up – Will was bullied because she was different. What makes bullies react and how should they be handled? How could someone like Will have been helped to adjust better to the school, from the start?
The Girl Savage is a moving experience carried by a strong heroine. I did not find the other characters nearly so memorable, but this didn’t matter as Will was the character who motivated me to read from start to end. While the book is probably most suited to mid-older primary school girls, I’m sure many male readers would enjoy this as well, as the themes can be related to by people no matter their gender.
Rebecca Fung, NSW
This book is suitable for mid to upper primary and tells the story of a young girl who has had very little formal education and is living on a farm in Africa surrounded by men and boys. This in itself has very real implications for the main character – Wilhelmina or Wildcat to her father and Will to her friends.
The storyline draws you in as you begin to unravel the characters and the many losses Will has to cope with throughout the book. Initially her mother dies from malaria and Will grows up learning how to survive and hold her own among the boys on the farm. She is an excellent horse rider, runner and singer – at least in her opinion. Then many years later she loses her much-loved dad to the same disease because of the conniving schemes of a woman on a mission to win the heart of Mr Browne, the farm owner. Catherine Vincy only wants his money and nothing to do with caring for Will so before she is even married she arranges for her to be sent to a boarding school in England. Will loses her best friend Simon, her horse Shumba and monkey Kezia as well as the only life she has ever known on the farm. The rest of the story is filled with antics of a different kind and how Will survives the freezing cold while living on the streets, in a monkey cage, up a tree and in a garage. The Girl Savage ends with a beautiful letter from Simon and a sense that this story isn’t finished yet. I can’t wait to read the next book.
Will’s character will appeal to the tom boys in the class but also to the naturalists. The boys will love the antics she gets up to and the fact that her best friends are all boys. The story could lend itself to discussions and/or studies on Africa, African animals, nature or nurture and bullying at school. Children could rewrite the ending of this story and find many different and exciting avenues to explore.
Heazle Shore, Camp Hill Infants & Primary School, QLD
Wilhelmina Silver is the central character in this story. She is the only child of British parents, living on a farm in Africa. Her mother died when she was aged five and she has been cared for by her adoring father. Will is pretty much allowed a free reign to run and explore the surroundings of her beloved farm. She is a small, slightly built girl but is very fit and strong. Her best friend and confidante is a young native boy called Simon, and she spends much of her time with him. They are very defensive of the environment and the native animals. She adopts a young monkey whom she rescues when he is being teased and he becomes a favourite pet. Seven years after the death of her mother, Will’s father dies from malaria also. She is left under the care of a friend who marries shortly after. The new wife is not as fond of Will as her husband and she encourages him to seek a place in a boarding school for girls in England. Before she knows it Will is forced to leave her beloved country, her friend Simon and her treasured pet, to begin a new life in a foreign land.
Will finds life in the boarding school a huge contrast to the carefree existence she enjoyed back home. Added to the problems associated with new rules and stark differences, is the fact that the girls in the school see her as an outsider with strange habits. They are determined to make life as difficult for her as possible. Eventually Will is pushed to breaking point which results in her running away from the school. After many hours of walking she finds herself at a zoo in London, where she manages to stay the night. Seeing the exotic animals at the zoo triggers further memories of running bare-footed and free. During this encounter she meets a young boy called Dan who later becomes her friend. He and his mother help Will through her period of re-adjustment to her new life.
This story could be read as a serial story to students in upper primary grades. Discussion could be generated because Will’s situation demonstrates that people often have to face adversity in life. Through showing resilience Will shows that she can get on top of her very significant problems.
Alison Kendal, ACT
Will (Wilhelmina or Wildcat), a white girl, lives half-wild on a farm in Zimbabwe with her Dad William Silver who is the foreman of the farm. The farm is owned by Captain Charlie Browne. Her mother died from malaria. Simon is Will’s best friend and they roam the farm and surrounding farms. Her nickname is Wildcat, which suits her aptly. It isn’t until her free life comes under attack, that she realises how much she loves it. Will is good at lighting fires, has a pet monkey and horse Shumba, looks grubby and really fits in.
Seven years after her mum’s death, William too gets sick from malaria and Cynthia, a nurse, arrives to look after him. He dies and Will rides off on Shumba, not returning for a week.
When she does return she finds that Cynthia has arranged for her to go to England – Will is not at all happy leaving behind the only way she has ever known, the farm, trees, grass, her pets and her best friend. She arrives at the prestigious Leewood School in England, after having thrown her school uniform and other new clothes in the fire on the farm.
Right from the start Will is giggled at for wearing shorts in winter, for not knowing how to use cutlery, for being behind on schoolwork and feeling totally bewildered and lost. “Lions and hyenas are nothing compared to packs of schoolgirls.” Will runs away and breaks into the monkey cage at the zoo, where she has one of the best nights of her life! It is like being back home in Africa. She later sleeps in a park and then hides out in a house of a boy she met at the zoo. Will dreads going back to the school – will she have the survival instinct that came so easily to her in Africa?
A story of courage and of learning to live with change and diversity, The Girl Savage was very enjoyable and a top debut by the author Katherine Rundell.
Kimberley Atkinson, Robertson Road School, New Zealand
Don’t judge a book by its cover. At first, I wasn’t too sure that I would appreciate this novel. Based on the cover and blurb, I had stereotyped it as just another odd one out, new girl doesn’t fit in, school girl angst type story. However, after a very engaging read, I would have no hesitation in purchasing a class or year set of this novel for year 7, possibly for year 8, providing local primary schools don’t start using The Girl Savage in the classroom first.
The narrative follows Wilhelmina Silver (Will) and her adventures on an African farm in Zimbabwe with her dad. This heroine is classified as a savage, she roams free and increases her skills living on the land. As one of the boys, life has no boundaries and days are carefree. When Will’s father dies of malaria, she is unofficially adopted by an ‘evil step mother’, Cynthia Browne. Cynthia immediately sends Will off to a boarding school in England, where she clearly does not belong.
Boarding school life for Will is a nightmare as she is teased and bullied and at the first opportunity Will escapes. Will’s survival skills see her living homeless in London until Daniel and his grandmother take a liking to her. After some clever advice from Daniel’s grandma, Will returns to boarding school where she no longer is teased and bullied but appreciated for her bravery and differences. (Everybody needs a grandma like Daniel’s). Discussion topics and activities for the classroom could include bullying, respecting differences, belonging/not belonging, not judging a person by outward appearances, etc.
Jodie Webber, Hurlstone Agricultural High School, NSW
The Girl Savage by Katherine Rundell tells about the life of a girl living in Africa with her father. Wilhelmina Silver’s world is really wonderful and she says it is "golden". She lives half wild on an African farm. Apparently every day is a day not to forget. The incident which explains how Will comes to have a pet monkey is especially engaging. Some students may have difficulty with the inclusion of words from other languages such as “ja”, “aiya” and “faranuka”. The favourite parts of the novel, according to one of my Year 4 students who read this book included: Will having the same name as her father, where Will was talking to the people who were desperately trying to sell the land that all the people live on and she went really crazy and said “I have everything I want and need. I have a horse, a monkey and so on.”
Activities for classroom use could include: compiling a glossary of non-English words, information reports on African animals and persuasive arguments about whether or not the land should be sold and a debate about the title: Is Will savage? I recommend this for animal loving children, eleven years and over.
Debra Bristow, Woombye State School, QLD
This is a unique book. Not only does it have an Afrikaans setting, which you don’t see very often, its characters offer a fresh take on the ‘raised in the wild’ story. The main protagonist, Wilhelmina, is sort of a modern day Pippy Longstocking of Zimbabwe. Apart from the obvious feminist messages in the book, it is a lighthearted look at a clash of cultures and coping with peer bullying for being different.
In terms of classroom use, this book is aimed at girls who might want something a bit different to the traditional ‘pony and princess’ books that get written for them. There are opportunities for language learning and vocabulary extension, as well as discussion relating to bullying or feelings of alienation (something that a lot of girls in the target age range face). At times the writing does seem a tad contrived, but the characters are endearing and the storyline is fresh and interesting.
This book is a nice way to look at African culture and there is a zoo trip gone awry, which students will find funny and can relate to. Some of the language may not suit reluctant or remedial readers, but this book would be great read aloud, as there are opportunities for accent roleplay, which could be quite entertaining.
Anna Forsyth, New Zealand
Will (Wilhelmina) is a fearless, brave and unique young lady. Brought up in the natural environment of Africa, she runs with the monkeys, farmhands and seasons. Living with her loving father after the death of her mother, Will has only ever known a life of love and consideration by all those around her. Those who appreciate her wildness and free spirit. When disaster strikes and her father dies, life on the farm where she has always lived and worked changes abruptly. The owner of the farm and now her primary carver Mr Browne marries Cynthia, an archetypal ‘wicked step-mother’ type character who convinces him to send Will away to school in England. A place Will has never visited nor had any connection with. How will Will fare in this new environment? Having lived amongst the native animals of Africa for all her young life, how much wilder will she find the young women of her English boarding school?
A crisis ensues and Will takes matters into her own hands, running away and hiding overnight, until she realises she must return to school and face her problems. She is not completely alone however; she does find an empathetic ear. The story ends on a hopeful and inspiring note, showing that even in the most dire of situations, there is always a light at the end of the lane.
Suitable for good readers, especially girls ages 10-14. Teachers can tie the story in with a geography lesson and also a focus on self-empowerment and problem solving.
Francesca Tulk, Exeter Primary School, TAS
I read this book, loved it and passed it on; then realised I had not reviewed it! Thankfully, the book is so strong it has stayed with me. Wilhelmina Silver (Will to her friends) is a most engaging character, whose name gives a clue to her nature. From the beginning of the story you see that she is a ‘loner’, not in the solitary sense, but in the sense of having the will to do battle for her own survival. When her idyllic African farm life is crushed by the death of her father, this girl, who has been living as a free agent among farm boys and wild animals, is sent to boarding school in London. Her new roommates regard her as a ‘savage’: she appears not to possess any ‘normal’ life skills such as hygiene or manners and she is bullied and harassed to the point where she can see no alternative but escape. Alone in a strange country, her journey takes her to the city zoo (very apt for a girl who has had her own pet monkey), then into the parks and streets until she is finally rescued by a curious boy and his sympathetic grandmother.
There are many aspects that make this book a great choice for 10-12 year old readers. The language and the use of Africaans expressions (without explanation) leads to some thought about common phrases in our language. The simple use of the word ‘will’ serves many purposes: as a nickname and description for the main character. Communication in general has its part: how adults fail to explain their motives to children, and the cultural differences in communicating our needs. The use of setting evokes empathy for the characters, especially Will. Africa is warm and wild: you can almost smell the horsey aromas and the farm children have complete freedom. England is cold, hard and lonely and the restricted life of boarding school, with its rules and regulations, seems stifling. This is a great book for a thoughtful child to absorb, but also for group discussion on a host of issues and topics of interest to children.
Maureen O’Shea, Sunshine Coast, Queensland
Deeply moving, beautifully written, I will look out for more books by this author. A simple, yet profound philosophy of life flows from the author’s pen through the characters of Will and those who love her. Remembering these truths enables Will to survive. Wilhelmina, “wildcat, whirlwind, stubborn, exasperating wild honest and true”, grew up in the wide open freedom of Zimbabwe, where her father was foreman of the farm belonging to Captain Browne. Through this young child’s eyes we find ourselves leaping and whirling through life, stopping to find exquisite pleasure in the small things, embracing life to the fullest in every moment. Then this delight turns to grief, followed by despair, through rich and evocative writing that enfolded this reader for captivating hours of reading, laughter and tears. A victim of the untimely death of her father and the unfortunate marriage of gentle Captain Browne to a cruel and heartless social climber, Will finds her carefree life with best friend Simon and the other ‘horseboys’, replaced by the upper class snobbery of an exclusive English boarding school.
Unable to stand up to life in her new school, Will, for the first time in her life, runs away. There is a very real chance that she will not physically, mentally or emotionally, survive against the overflow of rejection, injustice, humiliation, grief and misery, or the hunger and bitter cold of life on the run. She finds herself lying and stealing and eating garbage, just to survive, in a way that would have been shameful and never needed in Zimbabwe. In her fear and confusion she misses the few gentle souls who would have been on her side if she had let them. That is, until she meets David and his Grandma. They give her shelter and time to think. To return to school would be like cartwheeling into the wind, no, into a tempest, she reflected with her first true friends. But, as David’s Grandmother told her, it would also make her arms stronger, and her heart.
This is a book of intentional and exaggerated contrasts, providing plenty for a young audience of readers to contemplate. Lifestyle choices, manners and etiquette, status and possessions, values in life, and the ‘whys and wherefores’ of the way we treat one another, all come under close scrutiny. Resilience of the human spirit, what crushes it and how it is possible to survive, are explored as Will treads her hard road.
• Read aloud to a Year 4-8 age group, there would be discussion opportunities in every chapter.
• As a Literacy Circle group there would be plenty of easy and obvious connections, predictions, character, ‘think-abouts’, author’s point, or whatever else a teacher might use.
Stephanie Hanscamp, Mountain District Christian School, VIC