The Sundown Rule cover
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
The Sundown Rule

by Wendy Townsend

The titular “sundown rule,” imposed on Louise by her beloved father, is the restriction that she can only keep wild animals for a day, and then she must let them go. For Louise, who nurses hurt or abandoned animals with uncommon single-mindedness, the rule means a lot more than that: it signals respect for nature, acceptance of life’s transience, and the recurring experience of loss that concludes all of her catch-and-release interactions. When Louise has to leave her rural lakeside home and stay six weeks in suburbia with Aunt Kay and Uncle Jack while her nature-writer father is on assignment in Brazil, the disconnection from the land and animals she loves is profoundly unsettling. As disasters big and small pile up — her beloved cat is hit by a car; a friend’s father shoots a crow in front of her; her father comes down with appendicitis — Louise struggles to maintain equanimity and grieve effectively in an unfamiliar (though still loving) environment.

Louise’s knowledge of and confidence with animals is impressive, and her ability to act independently to save and nurture them makes her an empowering model for readers. Her relationships with humans are more complicated: she understands but resents her father’s decision to take the Brazil assignment, loves her aunt but finds her lifestyle sterile and foreign, likes her new churchgoing friend Sarah but is hurt by her claim that animals don’t have souls and can’t go to heaven. The unfolding of these contradictions is subtle, understated, and moving, achieved in short, episodic chapters that trace Louise’s grudging adjustment to her temporary home — and its changes to her routine and challenges to her values — as she cycles through resentment, horror, empathy, and fear that she’ll never return to life with her father. The time period is ostensibly contemporary; the geographic locations make the lack of digital communication seem organic rather than telling, and although a few details do suggest a slightly backdated setting, the story easily transcends particulars of both time and place.

An exquisitely developed sense of loss pervades the novel, from Kay and Jack’s grief for their long-dead daughter, to Louise’s alienation from the natural world (expressed in vivid descriptions of the paved-over husk of suburbia, with its occasional highway-side pockets of wilderness) and sorrow about her cat, to the never-discussed but omnipresent absence of Louise’s mother (accentuated by Louise’s attention to mother-child relationships in nature). The interactions of nature and civilization are often grotesquely, poetically tragic: “I saw a dead raccoon in the road. No one would move the body; it would be there until rain and sun and tires turned it into shreds of skin and fragments of bone.” Yet nature’s cycles, while brutal, also become morbidly comforting (“I still went to listen for the other baby raccoon even though I knew he’d been dead a long time. . . . Mice would gnaw on the cartilage and bones and his skeleton would fall apart and after a while he would become part of the rotting wood in that old branch”). Meanwhile, the connections Louise is able to sustain, both with the natural world and with the people in her life, are inherently hopeful in their depth, strength, and simplicity and in their broadening reach.

Creature-crazy readers will both thrill to Louise’s intense relationships with the various wild animals who pass briefly through her life and identify with the wrenching pain that accompanies bidding each of them farewell. The simple, timeless power of this quiet novel may not be for every reader in today’s fast-paced, hyper-media-saturated environment, but it will be a singular treasure for those still moved by the wild world.

Claire Gross, Reviewer


The Sundown Rule cover

Cover image from The Sundown Rule ©2011 by Helen Robinson.  Used by permission of Namelos.

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This page was last updated on March 1, 2011.