Swimming against the Storm – Jess Butterworth

I have been so excited for Jess Butterworth’s Swimming Against the Storm to finally come out as it is absolutely outstanding!

I’ve been sitting on this since Christmas but it’s definitely worth the wait as this publication date is exceptionally well timed considering the current upswell of youth to challenge the ineptitude and unwillingness of governments worldwide to deal with catastrophic environmental damage.

The key interests within the novel are around ecological issues, community, nature, mythology, sisterhood, friendship and the pull between the security of family and the desire for independence.
It is an simply brilliant book about children fighting for their community and culture.

Cover illustration by Rob Biddulph

In the swamplands of Louisiana the land is slipping away and the sea encroaching closer and closer inland every week, threatening the livelihoods and communities of the bayou until the company that owns drilling rights on the land declares it is no longer safe to live on.

Sisters Eliza and Avery with their friends Huy and Grace decide to seek out the mythical lycanthrope loup garou to force the government to protect the land, the only problem is a hurricane is blowing in…

‘Loup-garou,’ whispers Avery, and as she says the words her eyes shine with excitement.

It’s a buddy adventure book in part focusing on adventure with friends much a rich tradition in children’s literature from The Famous Five go to Kirrin Island and Swallows & Amazons are especially evoked for me here.

However there is a consistent foreboding tension, it has real danger and that deepening bonds theme of friendship and ‘growing up’ during adventure and peril undertone very much reminded me of Stephen King’s adult novella The Body sometimes better known as the movie Stand by Me (1985).

‘We’re in this together’, says Huy. ‘We’re not going to leave you alright?’
‘We are The Canailles!’ Shouts Grace bravely and she raises her hand to the lightning and the storm.

The friendship of the children Eliza, Avery, Huy and Grace is lovingly wrought, and the bonds between the children drive the events as they battle the oncoming Tropical storm to save one of their own, against the odds and orders of their parents. Alligators, armadillos, storm surges and even the myth of the loup garou don’t stop these children on their quest.

But it’s also a story about love. Love between sisters, love for family and love for your lands as something worth fighting for as the community so entwined with the swamplands endeavours to stay despite the encroaching sea.

The Cajun culture is lovingly described here with crawfish boils, community dances and music, language and mythology create a heady brew steeped in legend and wonder irrevocably embedded in the bayous.

The book has a strong ecological message about responsibility to the landscape and the abuses by big businesses which is excellent and exceptionally timely whether matched to other interests or for a young activist or budding Greta Thunberg, but the adventure and friendship factor means this is absolutely a book that any child should be able to be enthralled by.

My paddles glide through the green duckweed, spraying droplets with each stroke. They knock against Avery’s as we both try to get in the same space of water.
Avery purposefully bumps into my boat making me wobble from side to side.
‘That’ I say say, leaning forward and poking her with the paddle, ‘is not fair.’
But she just giggles and floats ahead, her hair blowing behind her in the wind.

Butterworth’s narrative is wonderful, fits right as the voice of a young girl raised with one foot on the land and one foot in the swamp, and the chapter page decals throughout add a mystical quality with fronds and flora swaying and swimming across the page.

The style is perfect for the characters and story; the short snappy chapters moving thematic event to event and cliffhangers meant I struggled to put it down.

I would absolutely recommend this to readers of Middle Grade fiction, but especially those who are transitioning to longer chapter books partly due to the brief chapters but also the book is written from the first person perspective of a twelve year old girl and the language is appropriate and easily accessible to younger readers without being ‘babyish’.

Swimming against the Storm has simply got a magic about it and I would say it’s definitely a MUST-READ of 2019.

Swimming against the Storm by Jess Butterworth is published by Orion and released 4th April 2019

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