Five years ago, Wendy Darling disappeared in the woods with her younger brothers, John and Michael. Six months later, only Wendy returned. Now, as she approaches her eighteenth birthday, Wendy finds herself caught up in the investigation when kids in her town start to go missing in Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas.
If the main character’s name wasn’t a tipoff, Lost in the Never Woods is a modern reimagining of the story of Peter Pan. In this new version, the Darlings live in Astoria, Oregon, on the edge of a large forest. (Interesting pop culture note, The Goonies is set in the same town.) In the five years since John and Michael disappeared, the family has fractured, with both parents wallowing in their grief and poor Wendy forced to be the adult.
Wendy has also had problems getting over her brothers’ disappearance. She had to switch bedrooms, she cannot sleep without some form of lights on, and lately, she has been absentmindedly doodling both an old, gnarled tree and the face of a young boy with pointed ears. She also finds time to volunteer at the local hospital, where she tells stories to the kids in the children’s ward – stories of the immortal forever child, Peter Pan.
On Wendy’s eighteenth birthday, she is driving home from the hospital when her truck hits something, and she discovers a ragged-looking boy in the woods. His face looks remarkably like the face she has taken to sketching. And he seems to know her, even though she has no idea who he is.
Lost in the Never Woods is a fantastic story about grief and trauma. Wendy has severe anxiety years after the fact, which is compounded by the shifting dynamics in her family. She constantly deals with the knowledge that, even though everyone around her is very understanding of her ordeal, no one truly understands what she went through. She cannot remember anything about what happened, not the initial disappearance, nor anything in the six months that she was gone, and that just makes everything worse for her; she feels intense guilt that she can’t do anything to aid in figuring out what happened to her brothers.
Wendy is all too relatable as a protagonist. This is a girl who went through a terrifying and traumatizing ordeal, something by which she is still affected, years later, but she is constantly diminishing her own pain, her own feelings, her own needs, in order to not make things “more difficult” for those around her. She tiptoes around her father, who has taken to explosive emotions and bouts of aggressive protectiveness; she coddles her mother, who hasn’t truly smiled in five years and works long hours to avoid being home. She has only one real friend; everyone else around town treats her with suspicion.
Peter, by contrast, is bright and vivacious. He is everything magic and light, and he isn’t afraid of anything. Wendy initially mistrusts him because of this – also because of the whole, you know, she thought he was a fictional thing – but throughout the novel, he is able to slowly but surely break down her walls in a way that doesn’t feel forced or that he’s pushing her too hard too fast. Because Peter is also someone who takes everyone else’s pain on his shoulders; he just handles that burden in a different way. Their dynamic is great because of their similarities, but also because of their differences.
As much as Lost in the Never Woods is about Wendy’s trauma – learning the truth about what happened to her and moving on from it – it’s also a mystery about a bunch of missing kids. The story moves at a fast pace, which emphasizes Wendy’s fear and anxiety, and you might think you know what’s going on, but I guarantee you that Thomas has some surprises in store. This was a very gripping novel, and I found myself invested in absolutely everything.
So this is kind of funny, but I got to a certain point in Lost in the Never Woods and legitimately had the thought, “Wow, this is a little dark.” It’s funny because the original Peter Pan story was kind of dark; it’s implied that Peter Pan kills the Lost Boys when they get too old. And honestly, even the Disney version has its moments. In this book, Wendy and Peter are facing off against Peter’s shadow, because in the world Thomas has created, shadows are the embodiment of evil. Considering how terrified Doctor Who has already made me of shadows, this isn’t helping.
Now, there are some issues with this story. The narrative moves in fits and starts. For a lot of the book, there is very little going on, even though kids keep going missing. Then there’s the fact that the local police are completely inept and nothing resembling good policing is done – people that live near the woods aren’t interviewed, no curfew is established, things like that. Despite his vow to protect lost children, Peter can be remarkably blasé about these kids being missing. Wendy will say, “We need to search the woods for this tree I keep drawing,” and Peter will say, “Let’s go get ice cream,” and they go get ice cream. I believe this is meant to emphasize Peter’s eternal child personality, but it comes across as very suspicious, like maybe Peter is hiding something. (He is. But it’s probably not what you think.)
Also, it was not as queer as I was expecting. (It’s not queer at all.)
Still, I did enjoy the book. The story kept me engaged, I cared enough about Wendy and her personal journey to overlook the occasional melodrama, and though the resolution happens way too quickly, there is a satisfying conclusion. At times both heartwarming and heartbreaking, Lost in the Never Woods is ultimately about healing, about facing your fears and your inner demons and recognizing that some things just aren’t your fault.
Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas is published by Swoon Reads and is currently available wherever books are sold.
*I was provided with a free copy by the publisher/Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.*
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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