“The Outwalkers” by Fiona Shaw is a tough read, but not because it’s not a fabulous story. In fact, the book is intriguing from the first page and emotionally heartrending to the last. It’s dark and depressing, but at the same time it’s filled with hope and the promise of a better world. My heart beat a bit faster from the beginning to the end of the book — I was that worried about the main character, Jake, and his incredibly loyal and wonderful dog Jet.
The time is the future, and when we meet Jake, he is living in a government-run Academy, a place where those with only one parent, or no parents, like Jake, live. It’s bleak, loveless, and more a prison than an orphanage. Shaw describes it perfectly by writing, “Forty boys in forty beds in this dormitory. Forty boys, and their forty griefs.” No one is happy here, and those who try to escape and fail are punished severely. That’s why Jake is determined to not be caught.
He’s not running away so much as he is running to his former neighborhood, where his kindly neighbors had promised to care for his beloved dog, and who he was sure would agree to take care of him. They had always commented on how much they adored him; surely they would keep both Jake and Jet safe and loved. But Jake learns the first of many lessons about the hypocrisy of people when he sees Jet chained inside a locked shed and the neighbors calling to report him.
He and Jet escape, and that’s just the start of their journey across England to try to get to Scotland, to his grandparents’ house where he will be safe. But getting out of England, in fact just getting anywhere, is almost impossible because of the chip in Jake’s neck. It’s a chip that is implanted at birth, a chip that allows the government to know where people are and almost everything about them. Jake’s chip is scanned constantly, and those trying to capture him know where he is.
Jake and Jet are fortunate when they run into a group of children who are Outwalkers. They have removed their chips and they stay outside of villages and cities where they could be captured and returned to the government prisons (Academies) or forced to work as frackers or in factories. With his new gang, Jake must try to get to Scotland with Jet, to freedom and safety.
Shaw brilliantly creates a world where England has become a walled-in country, literally. Those people left in England after the wall was erected must stay there, and no one is allowed in or out. One article the gang reads while on the run explains that, “More than one hundred and forty migrants broke the law and ignored weather warnings on Thursday, cramming into rubber boats in an effort to cross to France. When French boats were sighted inside English waters, hub police quickly used state-of-the-art drone stun boats to apprehend the migrants and prevent the French from picking them up. Once stunned, many drowned because homemade life jackets failed to keep their heads clear of the high waves.” The article goes on to say officials expressed their horror that parents would jeopardize their children’s lives in that manner. “Our laws are clear and our borders are absolute. The safety of our people depends upon it.” A different headline reads, “Europe threatens sanctions over zero tolerance immigrant policy.”
This nightmare situation is what Jake, Jet, and their gang are up against while trying to make it to Scotland. They have many near-misses, get caught, and even pick up a very unlikely new member of the gang. The heart-stopping (or heart-racing, in my case) action doesn’t end. At all. But that makes this 400-plus-page book go quickly.
Shaw does a great job keeping the many characters each clearly defined and with characteristics that set them apart from the others. Readers will be rooting for them all to make it, and (spoiler alert) horrified when a few don’t. The author’s messages are also clear regarding diversity, privacy, loyalty, morality, sacrifice, and love. This would be an amazing book club choice but might be too scary for a read aloud in elementary school. And while the book is aimed at middle grade readers, it also reads like a young adult book. Adults, too, would really enjoy this thriller. It’s wonderful.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, David Fickling Books (Scholastic), for review purposes.