A dark light in the coal mine of history

KIT'S WILDERNESS By David Almond Delacorte Press 240 pp., $15.95

In a rare break from storytelling tradition, David Almond gives the ending away at the beginning of his latest novel. But readers will continue to wander through "Kit's Wilderness" just for the sake of hearing this master storyteller.

Author of last year's award-winning "Skellig" (Delacorte), Almond offers a tale in which magic and realism blend as seamlessly as fresh-fallen snow.

When 13-year-old Kit and his parents move to Stoneygate to live with his widowed grandfather, Kit eagerly listens to the stories his grandfather tells about their family and the sad history of the coal mines. What intrigues Kit most of all is the mystery that lies in the darkness of the mines.

Kit doesn't have to wait long to satisfy his curiosity. He's approached by a brooding schoolmate, John Askew, to play a game called "Death" in a pit above the old mines. Kit discovers the eerie fact that both his and John's names and ages - really those of their ancestors - are inscribed on a graveyard monument to the Stoneygate pit disaster in 1821. After a knife-spinning, cigarette-passing, chanting game, Kit sees visions of the many child workers who died in the old mining disaster.

Askew's macabre game gets a bit heavy and overdone, and Almond's storytelling requires much suspension of disbelief. But just as Kit can't help following Askew into the darkness of the pit, even the disbelieving reader will become entangled in the web of stories that fill Kit's mind.

Almond based the book on his own childhood in a northeast England mining community, and the reader can sense that writing it was, as he says, "like a kind of magic." Through Kit's dark, imagistic tale, he brings to light that "stories are living things - among the most important things in the world."

*Enicia Fisher taught children's literature at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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