After her mentally unstable mother dies, 11-year-old Zoe goes to live with her Uncle Henry, who used to be a renowned surgeon but has become a wild-bearded, muttering, eccentric recluse and sculptor since his wife died of cancer.
Although Zoe's experiences with her mother's many temporary men have caused her to expect abandonment, Henry's gruff exterior hides a stalwart heart, a good sense of humor, and an artist's talent for observation and understanding, and Zoe is won over by Henry and his friends Fred, Bessie, and the Padre.
The only fly in the ointment is Zoe's classmate Hargrove, son of the mayor, who takes against her from the first. He and his awful father get involved with Zoe, a wild teen who has grown up nearby, and a tame white deer - with almost fatal consequences.
Zoe's voice, tough and knowing but also full of humor and curiosity, is so compelling that I was immediately hooked. Henry, gruff and complicated, is equally intriguing, and the two of them make a well-matched pair that readers will root for from the first. It's unusual for a children's book to focus almost entirely on the strong and important relationships a child has with the adults in her life, but that is this book's strength. Adults have such a huge influence over a child's life and so it's especially important for someone like Zoe, who has had such an unstable childhood, to be able to bond with some good 'uns.
Wil, the wild boy, is a mysterious force of nature and goodness, and he and his deer add a strange fey element to the story that somehow works, as do the sections featuring the point of view of a feral cat that lives nearby and slowly trusts Zoe even as she starts to trust Henry.
Less successful is the plot element featuring Hargrove. It is never clear why he seems to dislike her so much, and the idea of the tough boy who is really an artist and animal-lover (but whose bullying father would never accept this) feels a bit cliched. Also, we learn about his softer side via rather contrived overheard conversations, during which he is either talking to an animal or to his dad. It just feels too writerly and not at all like real life.
But it's only that last quibble that keeps this from being one of my favorite reads of the last few months. The relationships between Zoe, Henry, Fred, and Bessie, as well as a few ancillary characters, are just so fine and true. Highly recommended for grades 4 to 6.