Cartwheeling in ThunderstormsCartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

Her knees smelled the same as the air, of woodsmoke and earth. Had anyone ever been as happy as her?

having loved Rooftoppers more than most other books i read back in 2013, i was completely unprepared for my very tepid reaction to this one. i’m not gonna lie, it actually broke my heart a little. because Rooftoppers was perfect. it really was. rundell’s writing in that book made me swoon and the whole tone of the book was so fresh and rambunctious and off-kilter in a way that made me feel exhilarated and nostalgic all at once. i pushed it at everyone i knew with an under-twelve daughter with very positive results. it’s so rare that i read middle grade and i felt that i had stumbled upon a treasure and that rundell would be that perfect game-changing author who elevated middle grade to the level that john green elevated YA, where adults were unashamed to be reading the same books as their kids because they were so lovely and appealing no matter your physical age.

but this one…this one seemed much safer and more traditional. it has the feeling of a “lost classic” to it, something to be read alongside The Secret Garden or A Little Princess (neither of which i have actually read, mind you, but i stand by the comparisons, particularly in this book’s “tea party” scene) and classics are great and remain beloved for a reason, but they still read like products of their time; dated, static, fine stories, but without the transporting power of something as unusual and “new” as Rooftoppers.

this one lacked sparkle, is i guess the best way to put it.

it starts out strongwilhelmina a.k.a. “will,” “madman,” “wildcat,” “cartwheel,” is twelve years old and living on two tree hill farm in zimbabwe with her beloved father william. she barely remembers her mother, who died of malaria when will was only five, but her father loves her enough for two parents. they are of english descent, but will has only ever known an african life. she has her horse, her pet monkey, her own mango tree and a nest of baby hyrax*. she also has an african best friend named simon, a friendship of “the firmest, stickiest, and eternal sort.” will spends her days running carefree and barefoot in the bush, as unruly and unfettered as a wild creature. she is “stubborn [and] exasperating and wild and honest and true.” her father is indulgent with her, and all she has ever known is love and independence.

Wilhelmina knew that there were some houses that had glass in every window and locks on the doors.

The farmhouse in which she lived was not one of them. If there was a key to the front door, Wilhelmina had never seen it. It was likely that the goats that wandered in and out of the kitchen had eaten it.

there are very few rules, but one of them is a doozy, which is that it is forbidden

…to wear clothes that had not been ironed – even vests; even socks. Ironing was the only way to kill the putsi fly that laid eggs on damp clothes and burrowed into your arms and legs without you feeling it.

do not click this if you are squeamish. will would click it, but you don’t have to

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will’s relationship with her father is the same kind of quirkily loving relationship as sophie and charles in Rooftoppers, where they are both in admiring awe of each other and share secrets, a language of whistles, and a bond that is heartswellingly tender.

which is why it hurts so much when they are wrenched apart. because circumstances occur which end in will being sent away from the only home she has ever known to an all-girl’s boarding school in england, where there is no freedom, no wide open spaces, and no sunshineonly gray and drizzly (“grizzly”) weather.

and that’s where the book became less interesting to me. the decision to send will away comes at the insistence of cynthia, the beautiful and much-younger gold-digging widow who weds the farm’s owner, captain browne. despite will’s having been like a beloved daughter to this man, she is sent into a country completely foreign to her experience, which will feels is as sharp as betrayal. and it is a betrayal. she is unprepared for how different her life is about to become. cynthia assures her new husband that will needs to become more civilized; to be around others like her, which means white people, but which also means girls.

but it also means no more freedom, no more animals, no more sleeping outside.

or does it?

long story shortwill does not assimilate well. most of the girls at the school are bullies, and she hates them all instantly. between cynthia and the boarding school girls, there aren’t many positive portrayals of females in this book. and naturally, when will does make an english friend, it’s a boy. which is not my favorite thing about this book, will’s instant dislike of other girls.

i also am not really a fan of just how much will is unable to acclimate, because there’s a difference between being free-spirited and being flat-out nell. really? will doesn’t know how to use a spoon? despite the story at one point stating her heart was rattling around like a cutlery drawer in an earthquake. it just didn’t ring true, and her wildness actually kind of propagates stereotypes of africa and africans as wild and uncultured to these little rich white girls. it’s not great.

and once she says “see ya” to the school and takes to the london streets for her urban adventure, i felt the story went off the rails a little. i wish there had been a stronger relationship between the “survival skills” she used on the streets and her old african life. there are a couple of parallels, but i think it could have been emphasized a bit more to make it a more cohesive story overall. i mean, it might have been a little trite, message-wise, but this is middle grade after all; it doesn’t need to be super-subtle.

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this is in no way a bad book; it’s just not nearly as special as her first. there are still examples of her soaring and lyrical prose, but here it’s just a bit clunkier, a bit less magical. the writing is peppered with phrases and slang in afrikaans and the shona dialect, which gives it a nice rollicking rhythm, and the way rundell writes about zimbabwe, where she herself lived until she was fourteen, is absolutely worth the cover price.

i do think this is a book that middle grade girls will lovewill is a strong female character and there’s enough beauty in the prose to make it stand out from many other books for this age group, but if you are the parent of a little girl, you would be doing her a disservice, developmentally, if you didn’t go out and get her a copy of Rooftoppers right now.

i’m still going to read her next one, which comes out soontwo days after my birthday, in fact, because look at that cover!

and i am way excited about a girl-and-wolves story. i hope that the sparkle of Rooftoppers returns. sparkle would be a very thoughtful birthday present.

*these are hyraxes:

cute right?? yeah but also

be careful!

read my book reviews on goodreads

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