The End of the Wild


By Nicole Helget

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This timely coming of age novel takes on the controversial issues of fracking and environmental protection.

Stay away from my woods.

Eleven-year-old Fern doesn’t have the easiest life. Her stepfather is out of work, and she’s responsible for putting dinner on the table–not to mention keeping her wild younger brothers out of trouble. The woods near their home is her only refuge, where she finds food and plays with her neighbor’s dog. But when a fracking company rolls into town, her special grove could be ripped away, and no one else seems to care.

Her stepfather needs the money that a job with the frackers could bring to their family, and her wealthy grandfather likes the business it brings to their town. Even her best friend doesn’t understand what the land means to Fern. With no one on her side, how can she save the forest that has protected her for so long?

The acclaimed author of Wonder at the Edge of the World weaves a poignant story about life on the poverty line, the environment, friendship and family–and, most of all, finding your place in the world.


Chapter 1

A hint of winter is on the morning wind. Waist-long, walnut-colored hair slaps my face. A gray tendril grows from just behind one ear. I don't know why I have gray hairs at eleven years old. I just do. My eyes are gray, too. Steel, actually, is what Toivo, my stepdad, says. Like what my nerves are made of, he says. If you ask me, my eyes are way too big, like an alien's.

A wild pack of family dogs yaps along Millner's property fence. One's got black ears pointed upward. Another dog, short and squat, has brown ears down long. He keeps his nose high, so his ears don't drag on the ground.

One dog has nubs where his ears should be. And another, a mottled terrier that licks his nether regions, has one ear northwest and one ear southeast. An ugly pup, spotty and short-furred, has a wood tick the size of a dime attached to the side of his eye. A few regular-sized canines of other dog colors scratch their ears and bite away chunks of mud from between their toes. They bark at me and make a tetchy racket.

Ruff! Grrr! Yip! Oww-wow-wow!

In total, they're a gang of eight or nine canines belonging to our neighbor, Horace Millner, who is a killer.

I call one of them Ranger. He's a yellow-and-brown German shepherd. The fur around his muzzle is silver with age. He stares at me as though he is full of big thoughts. Ranger has a way about him that is different from the other dogs. It is a way about him that I like. He's a no-nonsense kind of dog. He's wily and smart and courageous. There are just some things you can tell about animals by watching them as long as I've watched these ones.

I pat my hand on my thigh. "Here, boy," I say. "Here, Ranger." Ranger cocks his head sideways. I'd like to have Ranger for myself. Millner doesn't deserve such a fine animal.

Ranger turns and pretends to ignore me. He steps his front paws up and down a little bit as though he's considering it, jumping the fence and running to me.

I inch my boot forward toward the fence and slowly raise my hand out in front of me.

Ranger turns his ears to me and puts his nose up, but he doesn't spook off. My boot scratches along the gravel road again. Ranger's tail lifts up.

"It's okay," I coax. "I'm not going to hurt you. It's okay."

The other dogs glance back and forth between Ranger and me as I creep forward.

"That's a good dog," I say. When I'm within touching distance, the fur on the back of Ranger's neck stands up. One of the other dogs growls low, so low that even though I can barely hear it, my neck vibrates.

Ranger snaps at that dog.

I jump back.

"Okay," I say. "Okay." I back away from the pack.

One last time, I lean over and pat my thigh. "Here, boy," I say.

He doesn't come, though. He must feel some loyalty to the rest of those wretched animals.

"Suit yourself," I say, and I turn away. No one is awake yet out here in the country. We live about a mile outside Colter, a small Michigan town, which has got a school, a community college, a beauty parlor, two churches, one cemetery, a few bars, Grandpa's pipe factory, a couple of auto garages, and not much else except a lot of nosy people.

This morning, the sunrise cuts like glass shards across the emptied cornfield, spills over the gravel road, and spears into the grove. The brown-and-orange leaf canopy shivers with the wind. Oak trees hold on to their leaves in autumn even as the rest of the trees lose theirs. I spy an oak with full branches. This time of year, middle of October, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms grow in layered bunches at the base of oaks. They are bark-colored—tan, brown, and gray—and have leaf-shaped petals.

From my back pocket, I pull a canvas bag and drape it over my shoulders like a shawl. I wish I had grabbed my jacket, even if it was already too small last fall. I need a new one, but I hate to bring it up with Toivo. We're always broke or "cash strapped," as Toivo says. That just means we have no money.

At the base of the oak tree, I stop. A hen-of-the-woods grows near the gnarled roots. With my pocketknife, I slice the mushroom from its stem and slip it into the bag. Hen-of-the-woods are very good eating, if you ask me. They taste like turkey or chicken, I guess. They even chew up in a birdy respect.

A bright stick of white pokes out from some leaves. After brushing the leaves aside, I find a bone. The leg bone of a deer, looks like to me.

I take that, too.

On my walk back home, I pass where the dogs were. I set the bone near the fence. I have a hunch Ranger will know it's from me.

By the time I'm halfway home, the sun is a big egg yolk. The air out here swipes like long cat nails at my face, but I just smile. Out here, my stomach isn't knotted about being hungry. My fingers don't tingle in panic over having no money. My breath isn't clipped short over minding my unruly brothers. My head doesn't burn with worry over my undone homework.

Soft, quick footsteps pad behind me. I stop and perk my ears.

The footsteps stop, too.

I check the road and the ditch and the edges of the field and the grove. Though I don't see anyone or anything, I hear someone or something breathing wetly.

The worst thing you can do when a predator has you in its sights is stand still with a hard-beating heart and a trembling upper lip. The worst, worst thing you can do is start sweating out a scared odor.

If I owned a dog like Ranger, he'd be here beside me right now, ready to attack whoever or whatever is out there waiting to kill me.

I walk again, with my fist clenched. I scan the ground for a weapon-suited stone or stick. After a few paces, footsteps rustle behind me again. I reach down and take up a forked branch, perfect for jabbing two eyes with one stab. I spin with my weapon raised.

But, again, no one's there.

Except my intuition tells me someone or something is.

"Where are you?" I demand. "Come out!" Maybe it's a bear. We get them around here sometimes. Or maybe it's Horace Millner. Maybe he's crouching in the ditch weeds. Maybe he's mad at me for being in his woods. Or maybe he'd like to get rid of me, since I'm a constant reminder of his crime.

"Who's there?" I say. To be tricky, I walk backward just to see if whoever is following me will listen for my footsteps before showing himself. A couple of steps back, I do see something walking toward me on the road. The angle of the piercing light makes it impossible to identify.

My heart throbs like a frog's throat. I walk backward a bit quicker until I nearly fall down. The footsteps pick up speed. I raise my stick.

Don't panic, I tell myself. Don't faint. Don't run.

Stand your ground. That's what buffalo do.

Run! That's what deer do.

I turn and dart. My arms slice the air, and my feet beat the ground. Even so, the footsteps gain on me. Up ahead, I'm surprised to see a bulldozer that reads KLOCHE'S HYDRAULIC FRACTURING parked on the side of the road. I dash for it, grab hold of the fender, and lift myself up into the cab. I collapse on the seat. The engine is warm, which means it's only recently been running.

For a few seconds, I squeeze my eyes closed and wait for a bear to bite down on my head or a knife to stab my back or a rope to get looped around my neck.

But nothing happens. Finally, I straighten up and push the hair behind my ears. I turn and look.


I squint and put my hand above my eyes like a visor.

Woof! Woof!

Ranger sits in the middle of the road. His wagging tail sweeps gravel back and forth. At his forepaws sits the leg bone I left him.

Woof, he barks again.

Then a high whistle pierces the morning air. Ranger's ears go up. He picks up his bone, circles around, and strolls back toward the fence.

On the other side of it, Horace Millner the killer stands staring at me with his arms crossed.

I gasp. Because the sun is behind him, to me he looks like a dark, scary shadow. Was he watching me pick mushrooms from his woods? Did he see me try to coax his dog away?

For a while, all I can do is steady my air and gape at him until he turns around and disappears like a ghost into the woods.

Ranger trots after him with the big bone hanging off one side of his mouth. When I can't see them anymore, I shout, "You're welcome, Ranger!"

Chapter 2

I throw my backpack—Toivo's old marine rucksack—under my desk and dive into my chair. The classroom clock says it's 7:59.

Alkomso, who sits behind me, kicks my chair. "You were nearly late again," she whispers. Alkomso Isak has been my best friend since third grade.

"I had to get my brothers to their classrooms," I say. "Anyway, I beat Mr. Flores, and that's all that matters."

"How's your STEM project going?" she says.

"Don't even ask." Just then, the bell rings. Mr. Flores, our science teacher, slides into the classroom.

"Juuuuust under the wire," he says. He's only about twenty-five years old, but he's already wrinkly around the eyes. Mr. Flores's face is pale, like the underside of a mushroom. He's wearing jeans and flip-flops and an old T-shirt with a big picture of Dolly Parton on it. He's holding a big cardboard box. "Are we ready to study some bird specimens today?"

Some kids groan, and some kids hoot and holler.

Mr. Flores opens the box and begins pulling out stuffed birds—a pheasant that looks about to take flight and a mallard sitting on a nest.

"Ew," says Margot Peterson. "Those are disgusting. I am not touching those."

"No worries, Margot," says Mr. Flores. "You don't have to touch them if you don't want to."

Mr. Flores usually makes science fun. Lots of times, he takes our class outside to study spiderwebs, compare rock compositions, identify clouds, observe tadpoles, and classify leaves. In the classroom, he sets up tons of experiments and plays videos about climate change and animal testing and the origin of the earth.

Mark-Richard Haala, who is in serious need of a new pair of sneakers because his smell like raisins, raises his hand. "Mr. Flores? I have a major problem with my STEM project."

The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fair is in a couple of weeks, and I don't even have a topic yet. Just the mention of it sets my stomach on the spin cycle.

"Why can't we just call it a science fair, like people used to?" asks Alkomso. "Why do we have to call it STEM now?"

Mr. Flores shrugs, then pulls out a glass case with what looks like a pink pigeon inside and places it delicately on the top of his desk. "What's your problem, Mark-Richard?" he asks.

"I have to change my topic. All the plants for my project already died."

"All of them?" asks Mr. Flores. He sits on top of his desk, lifts a white owl out of the box, and sets it on his lap.

"Yeah," says Mark-Richard. "Now my hypothesis is ruined."

Mr. Flores straightens some of the feathers on the owl. "Sorry about your plants. But just because your data doesn't support your hypothesis doesn't mean that your project wasn't successful."

Mark-Richard slumps in his seat. His long bangs hang over his eyes. "Yeah, but even my control plants in the good soil are, like, all droopy and hanging down. And the ones I planted in sand are brown and crunchy."

Margot scoffs. "Duh, Marky," she says. "That's because your parents smoke in the house all the time. And you probably forgot to water them."

Margot's friends giggle with her.

I spin around and look at Alkomso, who looks at me like Can you believe her?

Mark-Richard straightens up and scowls at Margot. "I did water them. But they got these little tiny bugs all over them." He wipes his nose with the back of his sleeve. "The bugs made webby things on the leaves, and they all turned brown."

Mr. Flores lights up. "Now, see? That's fascinating. Your project was a success even if it didn't produce the result you intended." He sets the owl next to the glass box and pulls out a small plastic bag of bones.

"It was?"

"Of course," says Mr. Flores. "What effect do aphids, or whatever kind of bugs they are, have on plants?"

"Death," says Mark-Richard. The whole class laughs.

Mr. Flores chuckles, too. "Yes. They kill them. But how? And why did the variable plants become infested faster?"

Mark-Richard flips his hair out of his eyes. "I don't know."

"True learning comes from being open to wrong answers," says Mr. Flores.

Margot sniffs. "Well, I'm going to make sure my conclusion matches my hypothesis. I want to get that purple ribbon."

Mr. Flores shakes his head. "Margot, Margot, Margot. There's more to life than ribbons."

"Whatever, Mr. Flores," Margot says. "You're not the one judging the fair. My mom says that the projects that win every year are the ones with really nice-looking poster boards." Margot's mom is on the school board. "And the winner gets two hundred and fifty dollars."

"Two hundred and fifty dollars!" I shout. I clap my hand over my mouth. I don't usually say anything, much less blurt it out to the whole class.

I can feel the eyes of all my classmates on me. I scooch down lower in my chair.

"Yes," Margot says, and drums her fingers on her desk. "I need to win that money."

How could Margot say that? Her parents are probably the wealthiest people in Colter. I'm the one who needs to win that money. Maybe I could pay the propane bill so we wouldn't have to chop so much wood from the grove to heat our house.

Alkomso twists around in her seat to look at Margot. "As if you even need the money, Margot. You can just ask your dad for whatever you want."

Mark-Richard wipes his nose with his sleeve again. "If I won two hundred and fifty dollars, I'd buy my brother and me new bikes."

Margot takes a lip gloss out of her pocket. "For your information, Alkomso, I do need the money." She smears the pink gloss over her bottom lip. "For a new phone." She slides an iPhone off to the corner of her desk. "This one's a piece of junk."

"I'll take that piece of junk," says Mark-Richard.

"All right," says Mr. Flores. "Settle down. And, Margot, put the phone away. No phones in class."

The sound of Mr. Flores's voice is drowned out as a big truck rumbles past, rattling the windows of the classroom. Mr. Flores looks out and grimaces.

"What is it?" Alkomso asks.

Mr. Flores stares and doesn't answer. Some of us stand up to see what Mr. Flores is looking at. Soon a semitruck with a bed full of long white pipes whizzes by. I can just make out the word KLOCHE'S on the door.

"Hey," I say. "I saw a bulldozer with that same name on it this morning."

Mr. Flores's head snaps around. "Where?"

"On the side of the gravel road, near Millner's woods."

Mr. Flores groans, then sighs. "We'd better start our lesson. Everyone, back in your seats."

Alkomso and I look at each other and shrug. Mr. Flores starts talking about hollow bird bones and pectoral muscles and feathers with vanes and barbs and bird flight. But every time the windows rattle, he loses his place in his demonstration. Finally, he tells us to open our textbooks and read to ourselves.

"Mr. Flores," I say, "is there something wrong?"

His cheeks blossom into two red dots, and his eyes squint. If Mr. Flores has an angry face, this is what it looks like. "I'm pretty sure there is," he says.

"With the woods?" I ask.

"Well…" he begins. He rubs his chin and blinks a couple of times, as if wondering if he should continue.

"Are the woods in trouble? I practically live in those woods," I say. I think about all the food I find for my family there.

"You and lots of animals," he says. "Millner's woods is an important ecosystem." He rubs his chin again and mumbles something.

"What?" I ask.

He clears his throat. "Wherever Kloche's goes, disaster follows."

I'm too stunned to respond. Kids murmur to each other. Someone says, "What do you mean?"

Mr. Flores tells us to get back to work. He sits behind his desk and opens up his laptop. He clacks his fingers against the keys and peers at the screen.

Mark-Richard and I scoot our desks next to Alkomso's. She flips her textbook to the chapter on bird flight. "What's up with Mr. Flores?" she whispers.

"It's those trucks," says Mark-Richard. "And that company. Whatever they're about, Mr. Flores doesn't like it."

"Maybe the Three Misfit-keteers could keep it down?" Margot says.

The class giggles. One of Margot's friends slaps her desk and repeats, "Three Misfit-keteers! "

"Shut up, Margot," says Alkomso. "You're just jealous that Fern is prettier than you even though you paint your whole entire face with blush and eye shadow."

Margot's thinly plucked eyebrows squish together.

My cheeks burn red. "Alkomso!" I hiss. "Don't say that."

"Well, it's true," she says. "Margot thinks she's all that, and I'm sick of it."

"Hey!" Mr. Flores shouts. "Knock it off and put your noses back in your books."

Margot scratches out words in big letters on her notebook. When she's done, she shows us. Fern's clothes are hideous, it says. And at least I don't have gray hair.

Mark-Richard sniffles and wipes his nose. "Don't listen to her," he whispers to me.

"Guys," I whisper, "let's just read this chapter."

But Alkomso can't hold back. "Margot," she says, loud enough for the entire class to hear, "your hair is going to fall out from all that poison you put in it."

"At least everyone knows I have hair," says Margot. "At least I'm not covering mine up all the time."

Alkomso straightens her hijab. Her cheeks puff up like she's about to let Margot have it.

Mr. Flores stands up and shouts, "That's it! Consider this your official warning for a quiz tomorrow on the bird-flight chapter."

The bell rings. Everyone stands up and gathers their things.

"Thanks a lot, Alkomso," says Margot. "You got us all in trouble."

"Whatever, Margot," Alkomso says.

As I walk past Mr. Flores, I say, "Sorry about that."

He sighs. "It's all right." I look past his shoulder to his computer screen, which is opened to a page that says Kloche's Hydraulic Fracturing: Powering Tomorrow's Future. A map at the bottom of the screen shows Colter, with a big red dot a few miles away from my house and a smaller red dot near Millner's woods.

"Hey," I say. "What's that red dot?"

"Fracking site," he says. "How can I help you, Fern?"

I stare at the computer screen. "Um—you see—I, uh—" I stammer.

Mr. Flores smiles. "Let me guess. You haven't started your STEM project."

I smile, too, even though I'm embarrassed. "I'm just not sure what to do it on."

He nods. "Think about what really interests you, Fern. Think about your passions. Think about what you care about."

"Can't you just give me some ideas?" I ask.

"I could," he says.

I sigh in relief.

"But I'm not going to." He leans forward. "Fern, you live and breathe science every day. I know where you live. Science is all around you in the soil, the trees, the weather, the animals, the way you heat your home, the way you put food on the table." He sits back in his chair. "Rise to the occasion," he says. "I know you can."

Deep down, I know he's right. But that doesn't put me any closer to an idea. "Thanks." I turn and begin to head to my next class when another truck rumbles past and shakes the window glass.

"Mr. Flores," I say. "What exactly is fracking?"


"Like, for oil?" I ask.

"Sort of," he says. "Natural gas. Miles and miles and miles beneath the surface."

"The smaller dot on the map," I say. "That's near where I live."

"Yeah," he says. "Looks like that's where the wastewater pond is going to go," he says.

"What's a waste—"

The bell rings. "You're late," he says. "You'd better get to your next class, Fern."

"Yeah, but—" I start.

I take one last glance at the screen. It looks like someone smashed a bloody wood tick right over my woods.

Chapter 3

After the last bell, I collect my little brothers, Mikko and Alexi, from their classrooms, and Alkomso and Mark-Richard do the same. We walk through Colter and on home together. On the outskirts of Colter is where Alkomso and her family live in an apartment. Mark-Richard and his brother, Gary, live in a trailer out near us. They're close enough that sometimes we can even hear their parents arguing and throwing stuff.

"What are you doing for your STEM project?" Mark-Richard asks Alkomso and me.

"Don't even mention it," I say. "I haven't started."

"Me, either," says Alkomso. "But that prize sure sounds sweet. What would you buy with two hundred and fifty dollars? Do you think they give it to you in cash? I've never even seen a hundred-dollar bill in real life."

"Bikes, for sure," says Mark-Richard. "And a whole bunch of corn dogs."

What's weird right now is that I can't think of what I'd spend two hundred and fifty dollars on. Even though all the things I don't have bother me all the time, I've gotten used to being bothered in that way.

Alkomso grips the sleeve of my coat, Toivo's old wool shirt. "Maybe you could get yourself a new jacket?"

"Yeah," I say. "Maybe a new coat."

"I'd take my whole family out for cheese pizza." As we approach her apartment building, Alkomso's little brothers nearly dash out into the street before she grabs each of them and pulls them back onto the sidewalk.

"No!" she says. "Don't you ever cross the street without me."


  • Praise for The End of the Wild:
A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
A Parents' Choice Award Winner
A Charlotte Huck Award Honor Book
A New York Public Library Best Books for Kids
A Kirkus Best Middle-Grade Book
An Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students
A Best STEM Trade Books for Students K-12
A Georgia Children's Book Award Nominee
A Minnesota Book Awards Middle Grade Winner

"Helget sets her plot in motion carefully and with so much attention to real-world detail, you can almost hear the difficult discussions it will provoke in our current polarized landscape."—The New York Times
  • * "This nuanced take on a pressing issue is an important one. Middle-grade readers will find much to think about in this beautifully written story."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * "Helget confronts substantial subjects like poverty, environmentalism, and mental illness, injecting humor and hope to provide balance. Without lecturing, she encourages readers to be thoughtful and curious."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "Helget has penned a rich narrative, laced with astute observations on poverty, grief, forgiveness, and environmental concerns.... An uncommonly fine account of perseverance and understanding in the face of adversity."—Booklist, starred review
  • "A stunning take on the environment, broken families, poverty, forgiveness, and death. Helget writes with grace, elegance, and humor about coming of age in a flawed world filled with beauty and peril. A poignant, uplifting, and entirely gripping read."—Pete Hautman, National Book Award winning author of Godless
  • "A big-hearted, generous story about loving one's self, one's community, and the environment. Fern is a stellar heroine, full of grace, intelligence, and resilience."—Jewell Parker Rhodes, award-winning author of Towers Falling
  • "Sensitive storytelling and richly drawn characters.... A thought-provoking, timely book that's sure to prompt lively discussion, and a powerful example of nature-writing for children."—Kate Hannigan, author of The Detective's Assistant
  • "An excellent book for readers interested in exploring a complex contemporary environmental issue.... A strong addition on a timely and important topic."—School Library Journal
  • "The discussion of fracking is balanced and leaves ultimate judgment up to the reader.... This book is well written and well worth inclusion in a collection."—School Library Connection
  • "With impressive pacing and precise, lyrical descriptions of the rural Michigan landscape and the diverse characters who make their home there, Helget crafts a remarkably even-handed story of a controversial topic."—BCCB
  • Praise for Wonder at the Edge of the World:
  • A Bank Street College Best Children's Book
  • * "If ever a girl could make her mark on the world, it is Hallelujah Wonder.... With [her] at the helm, Wonder is full-blown adventure tinged with mysticism, intelligence, and the spirit of discovery."—Booklist, starred review
  • "As in Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Lu's main focus is scientific exploration, and her informative musings will have readers wanting to do scientific research of their own.... An informative and richly detailed historical adventure."—School Library Journal
  • "Pulse-quickening exploits and taut descriptions will keep readers riveted.... Helget's tale celebrates the curiosity and mystery of life."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Readers looking for a plucky heroine may find it a good fit."—VOYA
  • On Sale
    Jun 26, 2018
    Page Count
    288 pages