Book Club May 2022: Where the Forest Meets the Stars

May 2022 – Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah

Reading a book whose genre is in question presents some challenges.  Zion’s May selection, Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah was a puzzler for a while.    Was the young child at the center of the story really an alien, or was this self-proclamation just some kind of wild story?  Since the science fiction genre doesn’t necessarily float our readers’ boats, a few people were turned off at first.  However, after a few chapters with back story and the introduction of more characters, this easy read started to break down some of our barriers.  Did we care if the child was real or an alien?  We were more interested in the point of the story.  Which the author seemed to be taking a long time to get to!

Eight-year-old Ursa shows up on Joanna Teale’s doorstep filthy, hungry, and professing to be from another planet beyond the stars.  She must witness five miracles on Earth before she can return to her home.  She will know the miracles when she sees them.  Having survived a double-mastectomy and now pursuing a doctorate in bird studies, Jo doesn’t really have time to deal with this child.  She decides to call local law enforcement and turn the girl over to them for care in the foster system.  Ursa is having none of it and disappears into the woods when the police cruiser shows up.  The deputy driving it warns Jo about moving Ursa from the frying pan into the fire of the foster care system (first thing that doesn’t ring true besides the alien story – none of us could believe this response).  Jo waits for Ursa to reappear and enlists her neighbor, Gabe, to help her investigate missing children reports to identify Ursa.  Gabe is battling his own demons, both mental and physical (debilitating depression, a verbally abusive older sister up for the Nurse Ratchet award, and a sickly mother).

Predictably, a romance starts to grow between Jo and Gabe as Ursa brings them closer.  Cue the Hallmark movie!  Like many of those films, this book seemed to be peopled with stereotyped characters and more like a Young Adult novel.  Until the author threw in some sex and another unbelievable scene.  Jo has had trouble dealing with the loss of both breasts in a preventive operation to get the jump on a cancer that took her mother and is a genetic threat to her.  So here she is stripping off her shirt and going skinny-dipping with Gabe like one of the boys, right?  Wrong!!!  Our readers can’t believe this action.

We also got a bit tired of the repeated visits to bird nests.  Yes, it was great hat Ursa was learning more about nature in general and birds in particular and yes, we know nature can be a healing, positive influence.  But enough, already.  Just when we’ve gotten comfortable with the alien fantasy, reality intrudes.  Bad guys show up with guns, bullets fly, a pet dog is killed, and readers find that Ursa, a precocious genius with an IQ of 160, is a very human, very scared little girl who witnessed a murder.  The bad guys track Ursa to Jo’s house, there’s a shootout with Gabe running to the rescue and killing two men (unbelievably, this traumatic event doesn’t seem to upset his fragile equilibrium).   In true Hallmark or Disney fashion, the author wraps up the ending neatly, tying off all the loose ends and turning Gabe’s sister 180 degrees to a loving, supportive person, and enlightening Gabe about his true parentage.  Could Ms. Vanderah have crammed anything more into this book?  As one reader said, this story contains everything – astronomy, ornithology, science fiction, romance, murder – what more could you want?

And yet, with all its problems, characters you couldn’t really get close to (other than the pet dog – we liked him and were sad at his demise), and too neat endings, this sweet, feel-good book was an easy read and very entertaining.  It was a little odd that Ursa never worried about where her next meal was coming from, but the premise of a child raising herself was reminiscent of Where the Crawdads Sing.  Although an oblique critique of the child welfare system, this story was certainly fiction.   A novelist by definition can skirt reality and take you to a totally different world.  Zion’s readers were anticipating a far-off galaxy as the destination but found Where the Forest Meets the Stars firmly rooted in our messy world.  Seven of us gave it one thumb up while four were neutral.  Next month, we read Falling by T.J. Newman before we break for the summer.  Happy reading!